Practically everyone has a view on Boris Johnson. Far fewer, whether friend or foe of his party, have much clue what binds Johnsonism together or even if this is a meaningful taxonomy at all. Whether a leader has an “ism” to their name does not always matter very much in the scheme of political success. Blair’s “traditional values in a modern setting” could just as easily be described the other way round, but the blend was the point. Among Tory progressives, the Cameron era is lauded by rose-tinted memories as a much clearer ideological prospectus than the pragmatic pick-and-mix it was. Angela Merkel’s near decade and a half in power in Germany was a mix of stolid instinct and sudden pivots.
And yet the quest to understand what Johnsonism means looms larger at the start of 2022 as the prime minister faces resistance to Covid-era restrictions in his ranks. The introduction of the vaccine passport limiting access to big events to the jabbed has infuriated traditional allies, leaving the PM’s loyalists crossing fingers that the calculation of modest restrictions pays off if the Omicron variant declines in the next few weeks and overloaded hospitals are finally relieved. If, as one of his oldest friends and backers put it to me, his present curse is that “Tories think he is doing unTory things they don’t understand”, he can change those things. Or alternatively, he can explain his narrative more persuasively to keep his internal coalition intact and avoid more uprisings of the kind that left him relying on Labour votes to get his latest Covid measures through the Commons before Christmas.
Covid management dominated the end of the year, but the twin squeezes of inflation (predicted by the Bank of England to reach a peak of 6% by the spring) and soaring energy bills have moved higher up the worry list as the Commons returned last week. That provided the political box-office highlight of the week At prime minister’s questions, Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, stood in for Keir Starmer. The result was a zesty Beatrice-versus-Benedict encounter Shakespeare might have applauded: “Disdain and scorn ride sparkling in her eyes.” Rayner hit a nerve with a question that might well be on Tory MPs’ minds too. The 2016 version of Johnsonism had highlighted potential “Brexit dividends”, including the ability to vary or remove VAT rates, currently at 5% on fuel bills. So why not do so? That was the subject of a long debate in cabinet too and the result remains in the balance.
Surging global energy price rises are bedevilling leaders across Europe and while the energy price cap has given consumers some protection this winter, many household fuel bills will double by April – the time when national insurance rises will also kick in and May elections will look like a punishing midterm test.
This impending “Krakatoa moment”, as one minister put it, means that priorities (cutting NHS waiting lists) collide with a pledge the PM gave his colleagues after the budget to avoid further tax rises to pay for more spending. These choices are also consolidating fresh alignments in the Conservative party. The north-west MP Jake Berry has just accused the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, of introducing “stealth tax” – his rises will affect well over one million taxpayers on the basic rate.
The demand MPs are finding in their inboxes, replacing pre-Christmas outpourings of anger about No 10 social gatherings, is for a swift announcement on some form of help to offset the domestic hit of oil energy prices. Unusually, Johnson and Sunak share the same caution on the “simple” solution of removing VAT on energy bills. The PM is wary of a cut that would be both small (relative to the size of galloping bills) and poorly targeted, benefiting consumers with bigger homes; he would rather means-test any relief.
Sunak, too, wonders whether removing a relatively small VAT component from household bills would not get the government much thanks. But more targeted relief for poorer households inevitably leaves those just above thresholds aggrieved. While the government equivocates about options, Labour can wield pressure on a subject it knows gets the electorate’s attention.
More than any other present-day politician in Britain, Johnson understood a shift in relations between the public and politicians, namely that swing voters were unbothered by inconsistencies so long as they liked the bearer of the message and his eclectic mix of attitudes. The Johnson I have known since his university days has repeatedly applied a vigorous cocktail shaker of aspects of various political philosophies to his purpose. His stump speeches condemned footling bureaucracy whether in Whitehall, local councils or Brussels as constraining innovation and prosperity. In practice, during his exercise of limited but symbolic power in two terms as London mayor, very often his quest was for more money from central government for grands projets – from dockland development to infrastructure schemes like a London airport in the Thames estuary (theoretically not a terrible idea, but destined for the “never gonna happen” file).
The objection to criticism of Johnson as a caricature of Tory stinginess is that he has, in fact, turned out to be rather fond of spending other people’s money. And that is precisely the pain point now, as the emergency period of Covid abates and decisions about wider spending priorities cannot be fudged or delegated. The “conversion to (higher-tax) Brownism” is now a frequent jibe from disappointed fiscal hawks, which must be an enjoyable moment for the former Labour chancellor to savour.
It is true that Johnsonism remains an edifice built on a complex construction of paradoxes. A freewheeling UK that has shaken off EU constraints via the Brexit he championed ends up raising the minimum wage and the signs are that levelling up will endorse the European habit of guiding industrial policy towards investment in stressed regions. A plan to “rouse Britain in the world” as a mercantilist revival (recall Liz Truss’s valiant dining out at a glitzy private restaurant in her days as trade secretary to coddle US favours on commerce) has so far not offset a sharp fall of imports and exports relative to comparable countries. Getting stuff in and out of the UK has got harder – and often more expensive.
A burst of spring inflation plus an energy squeeze sounds like the most miserable bits of the 1970s in one inglorious go. Any leader would struggle with that prospect and the challenge is of allocating resources between an NHS in need of funds or help directed to voters via tax relief or offsets to fuel bills. With a party divided between those who see looser spending as inevitable or even welcome and those who see it as a betrayal of fiscal discipline, Johnson finds himself riding two unruly horses pulling in opposite directions. These differences can be managed, but to do so the tousled helmsman will need to explain which recipe for “cake-ism” he has plumped for. If there is a philosophical core to the Johnsonian creed in power it is “unite and level up” the country. It was the centrepiece pledge of the PM’s conference speech – “the magic sauce – the ketchup of catch-up”.
He might propose in the poetry of Edward Lear, but levelling up in practice means governing in the prose of local devolution, including to parts of the country controlled by political rivals. Michael Gove has been entrusted with the detail, working with Neil O’Brien, a shrewd import to the No 10 policy unit with a solid track record in exploring ways to address regional imbalances. Of the everlasting Johnson-Gove frenemy relationship, one veteran who has worked for both notes that “Boris treats Michael like the swotty boy whose essays he borrows in a hurry for exam time”. Financial relief for leaseholders threatened with punitive costs by landlords to replace risky cladding, due to be announced next week, exemplifies Gove’s role as problem solver for the PM. It’s also the first time I remember the Johnson government acting against the interests of property developers, a heavily influential lobby when Johnson was in City Hall.
That exam deadline is getting closer if the resulting legislation is to have real impact before the next elections in stressed parts of the country and boost the Tories’ hopes of retaining a swathe of the trophy seats they won from Labour at the last election. Winners and losers will soon become apparent, personal affinities and aversions too. Ministers like working with Dan Jarvis, the affable Labour mayor in South Yorkshire, but find Andy Burnham in Manchester “trying because he’s on a permanent war footing”. The reality is that “rebalancing” the country will demand that ministers and mayors of different politics find ways to pursue common interests.
Most likely, the delayed launch of the draft legislation in December was driven by a desire to avoid a keystone policy colliding with headlines about rule-breaking parties and probes into Johnson’s foolish handling of an expensive domestic refurbishment. Much more delay though will make levelling up look like a metaphor in search of a meaning. The redistribution of opportunity, education and affluence can help fill out the hollowness at the heart of the Johnsonism. Tick tock.