Tory ideals count for nothing in the kneejerk era of Boris Johnson

Who would be a Tory ideologue? One minute you must favour a private-sector, low-tax, deregulated economy, basking in the glories of free trade. The next you must favour state spending, corporate taxes, regulated energy prices, trade barriers and restricted labour markets. One minute, queues at petrol stations are nothing to do with Brexit. The next they can be eased by Brexit-busting visa quotas. Now Boris Johnson boasts they are a sign of “a period of adjustment” from a “broken model … that relied on low wages” – the old Labour case against joining the EU single market.

The Tory party has always prided itself on such ideological backrooms as Policy Exchange, the Centre for Policy Studies, the Adam Smith Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs. With the party long in power, these organisations have weathered many a stormy U-turn, from Ted Heath’s prices and incomes policies to Thatcher’s variable geometry on Europe. But they retained an intellectual coherence. This has been shot to ribbons by Covid. The raw fact is that, when the nation faces a serious crisis, one cry alone is heard: “Thank God for central government and big spending.”

The erstwhile one-nation Tories gathered in Manchester this week must now listen to their chancellor, Rishi Sunak, take a leaf from Lenin’s book and assume responsibility for filling supermarket shelves. He blesses some industries with new workers and military support and others he starves. “We can decide," lui dice, of immigrant work visas, “what we need and when.” This week he favoured turkeys and petrol, ma pigs e daffodils were for the chop.

The reality is that Britain is not being run according to any political programme but through its prime minister’s headline responses to events. At the time of the 2016 referendum I do not recall any leading pro-Brexit publicists claiming that its purpose was to keep out seasonal or key-worker labour and push up wage costs. Had such warnings been issued, sensible precautions might have been taken. As it was, both in the pandemic’s early stages and now with its easing, ministers and civil servants have been glaringly out of their depths. For Johnson to blame others for his shambolic ending of Britain’s longstanding access to Europe’s labour market is outrageous.

Many of the government’s current policies are temporary. But Johnson has plainly enjoyed splurging on everything from test-and-trace contracts and furlough subsidies to CO2 factories, royal yachts and glamour railways. He even pretends to oppose higher taxes to pay for them, as if eager to shift the blame to Sunak. It is on the latter’s shoulders that an awesome task of returning his party and the nation to sanity now rests.

Populist leaders are rarely trammelled by ideology and revel in emergency powers that they are always reluctant to abandon. Johnson has no more interest in Tory theory than he has in consistency. As mayor of London he fiercely defended Europe’s open market in labour, knowing his city depended on it. When immigrants were no longer voters he simply changed his mind. Pity the poor pig farmers.

As for the thinktanks, I would wind them up and found just one, the Johnson Institute of Machiavelli Studies.

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