llustrations by Hannah Robinson
I have a confession to make. I am a natural Conservative voter. This might come as no surprise; I ‘look’ like a natural Conservative voter- I am white, a man and privately educated, after all. More importantly, I think like a natural Conservative voter. I am cautious of upheaval and believe in capitalism and the markets’ ability to create wealth. The latter view is widely accepted; socialists do not argue that capitalism doesn’t create wealth, only that it creates it for too few people. As it happens, I think this is a prescient analysis and I believe in a more compassionate, interventionist capitalism. Perhaps above all, I believe in competence, a metric on which Labour “is always behind”.
COVID-19 could change that Conservative reputation for competence. On YouGov’s latest survey, only 6% thought that Boris Johnson had handled the pandemic well. 45% believed that he had done his best ‘given the circumstances’ (as if we should ever expect anything less than a Prime Minister’s ‘best’). Another 45% believed he had “done a bad job and made wrong decisions”.
I would be interested to know which decisions have been viewed as wrong. Was it, on the one hand, the insistence on ending the temporary ban on evictions, the commitment to the A-level algorithm, or holding out on face coverings in shops? Was it, on the other, extending the temporary ban on evictions, abandoning the A-level algorithm, or making masks compulsory in shops? This government has taken the Conservative reputation for competence and put it through a shredder; The Financial Times have identified a dozen (yes, 12!!) issues since March on which the government has performed a volte-face; a complete U-turn.
Perhaps this should come as no surprise. Johnson may not be loyal to any position, but he is loyal to (and dependent on) those he owes his position to. The Dominic Cummings fiasco shows this variant of ‘loyalty’, as does his retention of Gavin Williamson; the man credited with providing 2/3 of Conservative MP’s support to Johnson election campaign. Johnson’s own backbenchers view most of his cabinet appointments as “third-rate sycophants and hangers on”. It should also come as no surprise that, according to him, none of this is his fault. Johnson has both before and after becoming Prime Minister long adopted a ‘managerial’ role, close enough to claim credit, distant enough to blame others. Those others, in fitting with Cummings’ view of the Civil Service, are almost always high ranking, often highly competent, officials or public bodies; Ofqual or Public Health England, for instance.
When Jeremy Corbyn was Leader of the Opposition, Johnson could take extreme positions on Brexit and, convincingly, trashing his opponent’s ability to govern. This won him a landslide but lost some voters (like me) from the moderate centre-right. But the ground has now shifted beneath Johnson’s feet; it is his competence taking a pounding and in Keir Starmer, he faces a leader who is closer to my idea of a Prime Minister. Centre-right moderates abandoning Johnson for Corbyn in droves was never a realistic prospect. The same is not true for Starmer. BoJo has lost his mojo; he must get a grip and start acting as a competent leader or he risk his own party kicking him out before the next election.