Sarah Ingham: Johnson’s successor must forge a conservative path through the crises ahead
Sarah Ingham is the author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
After more than eight months of haemorrhage, Prime Minister Johnson’s job is finally breathing its last breath – another Covid victim, although the victimization was self-inflicted.
The long and drawn-out disappearance began in early December last year with the first reports from Partygate; it ends on Tuesday when the new Prime Minister visits Balmoral.
All that remains is the melancholy “What if?” and “If only”. The historic achievement of an 80-seat majority wasted, the unique opportunity to remake the country wasted.
Johnson might have been forgiven for his often chaotic approach to the top job, reflected in his Peppa Pig speech at the CBI last November. What has proven fatal are the two fingers of his regime doing what we say and don’t do what we do to voters.
The perception has taken hold among the public that during the draconian shutdowns the First Lord of the Treasury ignored the very laws/rules/guidelines he imposed on the rest of us, presiding in Downing Street Square as Lord of Misrule.
When we the little people had the chance to make our views on the Johnson government known, it was obvious that previous goodwill had seeped through. North Shropshire, Chesham & Amersham, Wakefield, Tiverton & Honiton – all lost. Johnson, the Tories’ greatest electoral asset, turned into a giant blonde burden before you could say ‘Me, the returning officer’.
Given the eagerness with which they dumped him, his parliamentary colleagues must have felt that they were chained to a political typhoid Mary.
Johnson may be making history, but the impact of his government’s response to the pandemic may well be with us for the rest of the decade.
Goodbye Johnson, then. But more seriously: goodbye conservatism?
Locking down most people and shutting down the economy for almost two years was groundbreaking. It ushered in levels of state control not seen since the total war of 1939-45.
The coronavirus can now be seen in perspective – similar to a bad cold rather than the bubonic plague for the most part – but public support for government intervention shows no signs of waning.
Liz Truss’ concern for distributions a few weeks ago reflects an appetite for collectivist solutions, especially to deal with the current Covid and energy cost crises.
Just as many addicts need to hit rock bottom before they can begin their recovery, the current perfect storm hitting Britain could be the catalyst for global change for the better. But it’s up to the Conservatives, especially after 12 years in power, to convince an increasingly unsympathetic public that more big-state solutions aren’t the answer.
Privatization, the flagship of Thatcherism, seems to be collapsing. Repeated polls show ever-growing support for renationalisation.
A YouGov-Time A poll earlier this week found that 47% of Conservative voters want energy companies to go public again. A political advert promoted by Momentum from 2017 thanking UK taxpayers for subsidizing Europe’s railways is currently doing the rounds on social media. He argues for the current failures of privatization almost as effectively as the recent politically toxic images of raw sewage dumped into the sea on Britain’s bathing beaches.
Essential to the proper functioning of a society, assets such as water and electricity are critical national infrastructure. One has to wonder what difference nationalization would make, given that most of the boards and management teams of Forgem and Ofwat, for example, are made up of former senior civil servants and/or quangocrats serial.
The current failure of privatized industries is a failure of regulation. In the future, all regulators should have walked in the private sector.
Those tempted to reject privatization should ask themselves how far the NHS, Britain’s first nationalized entity, is working for them. During the pandemic, hospitals, GP surgeries and dental practices have become no-go zones for the most part as we have been urged to ‘protect the NHS’.
When a so-called taxpayer-funded service needs to be taken away from its users for its own protection, it’s time to admit it’s broken. One step on the long road to fixing nationalized health care would be to encourage private health care, including offering tax breaks to those who opt into it.
Soaring energy prices in the UK reflect the iron law of the market whenever demand exceeds supply. Instead of ensuring cheap and plentiful electricity for Britain, the government has done unnecessary tinkering, from promoting alternative energy providers, 31 of which have gone bankrupt, to capping price. VAT, Ofgem Bad Debt Tax, Standard Fees and Green Tax add to the financial burden on worried consumers whose frozen hands will soon be hovering over their thermostats.
Prioritizing Net Zero, which all MPs endorsed in June 2019, over national energy security represents a very unconservative triumph of ideology over pragmatism. With the chair of the climate change committee now up for grabs – nominations extended until 12 September if you’re interested, Dr Bjorn Lomborg – this is an opportunity for the new Prime Minister to give a new direction to a organ which, in July, gave us the paper Risks to health, well-being and productivity linked to overheating in buildings.
Come winter, it won’t be such good reading: thousands of pubs and other small businesses may have to close due to energy costs. Drill, baby, drill; frack, baby, frack.
Taking inspiration from the Chinese Communist Party, the lockdown was a policy that should only have been implemented by leftist fanatics and big states. Clearly, the Tory MPs who lazily claimed Johnson was on the side of freedom didn’t capitalize on their months away from the House of Commons by re-reading Burke, Hayek or Mill.
Destroying hard-won freedoms, relying on statutory instruments, sidelining Parliament and allowing the police to literally take liberties by threatening to check shopping baskets is not instinctively conservative .
Fortunately, Keir Starmer, his Labor colleagues and the other opposition parties demanded even tougher measures.
As Citi and Goldman Sachs this week embarked on a bidding war over projected annual levels of UK inflation – 18 or 22% – Johnson faced its final curtain. He did it his way. His successor now has the chance to do it the conservative way.