Why ‘good’ Tories are supporting Boris Johnson

I met last night with a senior Conservative MP in a very small gathering (mostly of Tory supporters) under Chatham House rules. It was – even by those standards – a frank and honest discussion. X comes from a Conservative tradition I’ve always had regard for – although it is not my tradition – and I’ve been alarmed to see Tories of that tradition supporting Boris Johnson (“BJ”). In the circumstances I was keen to understand how X had arrived at that destination.

I tweeted a summary of X’s view last night but want to address (1) X’s logic in more detail and (2) some of the responses to my tweet.

The headline was that X believed BJ was the best way to counteract the threat from the Brexit Party. Although X was a Remainer – and believed BJ could pivot to supporting a second referendum – X was also prepared to contemplate what I understood to be a managed No Deal as an alternative to the Corbyn Government that X saw as being the natural consequence of not meeting the Farage threat.

Most of my tribe will likely have our own views about the damage a “managed No Deal” will do. And they are likely to differ sharply from the near equanimity of X. I certainly said so to X. But what I wanted to focus on is what lies on the other side of the balance for X: the fear of a Corbyn government.

X’s concern – and I reiterate that the dinner was unusually frank and honest – was that Corbyn’s would be no ‘normal’ Labour Government. And because of that, keeping Corbyn out had an importance of a greater order.

X elaborated little on why X believed that keeping Corbyn out was so important but I understand, and have some sympathy with, X’s basic point. I worked as a tax advisor to Ed Miliband’s Labour Party and have also advised McDonnell but I have no ambitions to be part of a Labour Government. This means I have no need to be otherwise than frank in giving some colour to what I understand to be X’s concerns. (I should say that what follows is what many of my tribe, including some Labour MPs, say privately about a Jeremy Corbyn Government.)

There is a narrative on some parts of the Left that sees, or finds it useful to portray, a putative Corbyn Government as coming from a moderate European social democratic tradition. But I think, and understood X to think, that narrative is wrong, and sometimes disingenuous.

What is my evidence for saying that? Here are the headlines.

In unguarded moments Labour talks about having the desire to effect an “irreversible” change in the country. That is uncomfortable language to use in a democracy. But more than that: we don’t know what that irreversible change looks like.

Most other countries have proper constitutions but the only higher law to which the UK is presently subject comes from the EU. It offers some constraints on some actions that step outside our collective European norms. Those constraints are limited by the fact that the EU is only able to constrain us where we have permitted it to do so but they do operate with greater intensity in the field of economic policy.

Labour’s leadership is anxious that we should leave the EU. And I find it hard to rationalise this otherwise than by reference to the fact that it wants to jettison the constraints that the EU represents; it wants unlimited power to remake the country. Labour says we need to leave the EU to jettison rules on state aid. But there is nothing in Labour’s 2017 manifesto that EU law would prohibit.

What specific actions does Labour believe EU law would constrain? What more does Labour have planned that it will not come clean about? Before we usher in “irreversible” change, are we not entitled to know what it looks like?

There are, of course, compelling counter-narratives to to the narrative that a Corbyn Government would have unconstrained power to effect irreversible change to unstated ends. Perhaps the most powerful is that he would be limited by the realities of Parliament democracy, a pluralist Labour Party, and the lack of a manifesto mandate. And I suspect X’s analysis, ultimately, understates the limitations imposed by these practical constraints. But I wouldn’t pretend to be completely unsympathetic to it.

More generally X also believed that it was possible to ignore BJ’s work as a paid rhetorician and discover in him the more socially liberal Tory who was London mayor. You’ll have your own view about that but I wonder whether X was really persuaded by the argument.

On the available evidence (purely hypothetically because I will vote for neither) I would choose a Corbyn Government over a Johnson one. But the above is the case, as I understood it, made by X, a senior Tory politician not impossibly far from my own tribe, for the alternative.

14 thoughts on “Why ‘good’ Tories are supporting Boris Johnson

  1. An interesting perspective, yet needs to be countered by the number of Tories who are looking to take us out of the EU for exactly the same reasons (lack of constraint from external bodies) in order to pursue a path that benefits only a small group, which represents at least as great a danger to the country, if not greater. Look at what has happened already before Brexit has completed, a nation horribly divided and less civil than it has been for years. I am no fan of Corbyn, and certainly not of Milne, but in my opinion the Boogie man is here and in Number 10 already. The fact that Tories cannot see what is so terribly wrong with this incarnation of their own party is why we are on our current disastrous path, and challenges their ability to judge others accurately.

  2. If X’s concern is that a Corbyn government untrammelled by EU strictures represents a serious threat to this country, then supporting a Tory leadership candidate whose stated position is that we should abandon those strictures even if it results in utter chaos is a strange way to go about preventing that eventuality.

    No matter how “managed” a No Deal outcome is, any government that presides over one will soon find itself facing the voters, weakened by accusations of gross mismanagement and wilful negligence. The UK is and will continue to be unprepared for such a cataclysm. It would be a godsend for a politician who sees chaos as a necessary ingredient for radical change, and simply by dint of not being the man directly responsible for the mess, he will have a good claim to the throne. The threat of the Brexit Party will have been nullified but at the cost of torching the Conservative Party’s electoral hopes for a generation.

    To use a Game of Thrones analogy, Boris is like a Targaryan (he even has the hair!). No matter what he might say, we know that he is prepared to burn the whole world down if it means he can be King of the Ashes for a few months. And Corbyn would thank him for it as he began cleaning things up. . . his way.

  3. I don’t recall anything from his time at the Foreign Office which would suggest he’s at all suited to Number 10.

  4. This is deeply depressing. As a country we are so ****ed. I fear for the futures of my children and grandchildren.

  5. “Our ambition is to make the change in our country and in our world lasting, irreversible.” (A.C.L. Blair, 2004, Labour Party Conference). Uncomfortable language ?

  6. Here’s the quote, contextualised: “Our ambition is to make the change in our country and in our world lasting, irreversible. In the last century brief periods of progressive governments were rapidly extinguished. In this century we must ensure that the progressive case once made is maintained, and the periods of conservatism are the punctuation marks not the sentences in which our history is written.”

  7. Interesting that the most obvious reason for the Labour leadership supporting Brexit – that a huge swathe of their working class base voted for it, and the top 10 marginals they have to win to beat the Tories are Leave strongholds – is completely absent from this narrative.

  8. And just prior to it:

    “Knowing that it we are to make the NHS deliver what it was created to deliver, free, universal, decent health care for all, we have to modernise it to meet the demands of a new age.

    “Knowing that unless we offer more than the standard comprehensive, parents will desert our state schools and the whole of our society will suffer.

    “Knowing that we will not solve our transport problems by traditional methods of funding or our pensions challenge without altering the rest of our welfare state.

    “And there are the easy bits and hard bits of leadership.

    “There’s no doubt which is preferable.

    “But true leadership means doing both.

    “Without the climb, you don’t hit the peak.

    “And we can reach it.

  9. I think there are other reasons why a Corbyn government would be less of a threat than X suggests. He and his inner circle are not executives with the capacity to get things done. They are agitators. I agree that they are more dangerous in their ideas than they are prepared to reveal. I actually think they are authoritarian agitators. But I do not believe they would be able to achieve what they would set out to do, both because of the rest of the Labour Party and the House of Commons, and because of their own lack of executive ability. By contrast, a Johnson government would be able to do all the damage we imagine, because his goals are much simpler – self-aggrandisement, no matter the consequences or cost. His track record as Mayor demonstrates that all too well, despite X seeing it as reassuring. It’s not reassuring at all. It shows that he was able to present himself to Londoners in a guise that appealed to metropolitans, just as he now turns himself into the darling of The Shires. The mess and near-corruption he left behind in planning and building London lives with us to date.
    Interesting post. Thank-you as ever. It gives a much better rationale for why Corbyn is a Leaver than any other.

  10. I don’t think any major party is going to *win* an election ~ we are in for a decade or more of no overall control.The problem with Johnson is that the EU (and most of the sane world) has a poor view of him from his days as Foreign Secretary and will therefore refuse to give the UK any free passes. Corbyn is 70, and he cannot last much longer. The real threat, IMO comes from farage’s Brexit Party, which scooped up most 0f the Tory vote in the EU elections and will scoop up the Tories when they crash and burn…they might also gain the lunatic left fringe, ie the Hooey & Fox types.Sad mad times, my friends. And for us EU ‘immigrants’, maybe marking the end of decent civilised UK that we grew up in or settled in.

  11. People, of all values in a “democracy” (a small quantum of which can ever said to have existed in this country) wish to usher in irreversible changes. Thatcher talked of changing the soul, pretty sure it wasn’t just for the weekend. When the last government, for whose consciously harmful and needless policies preliminary studies attribute over 100,000 early and avoidable deaths, presided over irreversible change. If you are of the left, if you desire fundamental social change of course you want irreversible change. Why don’t you just avow your politics instead of this pretence.

  12. Not sure why you object to the idea of changes being “irreversible” so much. Surely, this is simply a desire to create policies that the Tories can’t easily reverse. We could see the NHS as irreversible in this sense, an institution that has become so popular that scrapping it would be political suicide.

    Much of Labour’s 2017 has this kind of thinking behind it, a strategy that attempts to create institutions that stand the test of time. Scrapping tuition fees is an example of that, it’s much harder for a future government to reverse than a simple fee cut. Similarly, Labour’s fiscal rule seems like a positive change and one that will hopefully help reverse what is an inbuilt bias our politics has against running deficits even at the zero lower bound.

    I’m not sure why you choose to take a negative interpretation of something that could easily be viewed in a more positive light.

  13. There is something really stupid about what ‘X’ has said – so utterly devoid of self-examination or reflection or even self-awareness – in that it is the Tory party that has been working assiduously to create irreversible change in this country since 2010 and before.
    Their demolition project rolls on.
    Can one take such a person with such a surfeit of ignorance of one’s intent and actual deleterious impact seriously? Again, I am reminded (1) just how divorced from every day life our politicians are and (2) the lengths to which the Right will justify Johnson just to retain power at any cost.
    As for Corbyn’s/Labour’s irreversible change soliloquy – it seems to come directly out of path-dependency theory. However, history has shown that it is Liberalism and Labour who have provided the punctuation marks to the long sentences of laissez faire. Labours goal seems to be to re-write history. Is that a bona fide goal of a modern political party? I don’t think so.
    But what is really galling about both the Tories and Labour is that both are now essentially reactionary parties who seemingly cannot work together and see the future as mono-political – a one-party deal.
    This is pure fantasy – and it is also anti-democratic for any party to say they know best – alone. Democratic politics does not work like that. Democracy works when opposing sides work together and especially when there is a constitution that underpins it. Democracy is about the push and pull of ideas.
    The centre in my view cannot be held by one party pretending or claiming to be centrist; the centre of politics should be a shared and contested space with other parties.
    In terms of outcomes, the centre itself is that which delivers the greatest amount of social benefit to the largest amount of people.
    For EVERYONE Jeremy – not the few – is how you unite a country the state we are in at the moment.

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