AListen to any Boris Johnson opponent what makes them nervous about him and it won’t be long before they bring up bananas. The prime minister used the fruit as a campaign device in the 2016 referendum, stating that the EU dictates “what shape our bananas should be” as evidence of meddling by Brussels. There was less behind the claim than it deserved the attention it received: European Commission regulations simply divide bananas into classes so that those who buy them know what kind they are getting. But it was typical of Johnson’s ability to make a point in primary colors while winding the other side.
This weekend, when talks about a post-Brexit security and trade deal come to a close, Johnson might think that bananas have had their time. Now things are different. He spent yesterday on the phone with Ursula von der Leyen trying to bring the negotiations out of their stalemate and has fewer opportunities to play political games while trying to deal with Covid. But the state of his party is such that it needs a bold and colorful way to change the political debate.
Things have gone bad for months, with upset over the way the government repeatedly failed in the summer on exams and free school meals. But the stakes have risen sharply due to last week’s rebellion over coronavirus restrictions, which was the largest since Johnson won his majority. Those measures were passed, but only because Keir Starmer urged the Labor Party to abstain. The Tory revolt was powerful because it did not come from a single wing of the party, nor from serial rebels. But, according to some of the Brexit supporters involved, the vote on Covid still sends a warning to the prime minister that he cannot be seen to compromise in talks this weekend.
The banana skins that it could slip into line up. The consequences of these talks will drag on for months, whatever the end result. Conservative MPs are waiting for their next step in containing the pandemic. They expect the government to take a more localized approach to the tiered system, which would see its areas removed from the stricter restrictions because infection rates are much lower than those in neighboring cities.
So far, the number 10 has nimbly deflected a personal and bitter confrontation with the rebels, insisting that the prime minister understands how difficult decisions are about blocking areas and making it clear that a rebellion now will not lead to someone being disregarded. for promotion to government in the future. It’s a soft, smooth new approach designed to woo defenders who feel hurt by the confrontational style of Johnson’s former assistant Dominic Cummings.
Since Cummings left, MPs report that Johnson seems more committed to the party. “He’s been calling a lot of us just to chat,” says a deputy who is currently unable to enter parliament. “The ministers have also contacted, which they did not do before. There has been a total change in attitude ”. Johnson has also spent more time in the socially estranged Commons tearoom.
This won’t make much of a difference if MPs feel that they are ultimately being ignored in decision-making. Johnson had hoped the start of the vaccination program this week would give his party the determination it needed to stick with the restrictions for a few more months. But no amount of good news about vaccines can quell MPs’ anxiety about businesses in their constituencies that may collapse long before life returns to “normal.” There are several very miserable months to get through first.
How does Johnson get through these months without making mistakes? In addition to hoping that he will take a more sensible approach to the levels when they are revised on December 16, senior MPs are desperate for him to start reminding his party why he and they are conservative.
This may seem trite, but it makes sense considering that morale is so low in the Conservative seats that it’s common to hear former Johnson supporters complain that their party has ended up as a Labor party led by Jeremy Corbyn. A senior congressman says: “They are governing as a Corbyn administration would have. All public policy is now one big state, anti-freedom, high spending, high debt, don’t worry about what the problem is because we will solve it with another £ 100 billion. Another complains: “We are not only in the terrible position of having to implement Jeremy Corbyn’s economic policies, but also his social policies. It feels very oppressive. “
A group of Conservatives met last week and agreed that the best way Johnson could rally the party and cheer on MPs was by creating clear dividing lines with Labor. “What we need are some votes in the new year to unite the Conservative Party,” says one. “We just spent a lot of money on defense – let’s vote on that. Why aren’t we going to vote so we can deport the killers? “
Normal party politics was suspended for much of this year as politicians tried to reach consensus to address the pandemic. But one feature of life that returns to normal will surely be that the two main parts express why they are different from each other beyond the endless fights between Starmer and Johnson over basic competition and hindsight.
As part of this return to normalcy, Johnson needs to start throwing bananas to irritate his opponents. This was a strategy that George Osborne obsessed over to the end, but it is important to create dividing lines with the opposition, especially when his own party is fighting. The former chancellor spent much of his time donning banana skins for Ed Miliband’s Labor to slip through in the form of uncomfortable and political votes that grab the headlines. He often executed them clumsily and seemed to enjoy cutting welfare too much. But the principle was good: a party unites when it is reminded of its opponents’ beliefs. The closest the Conservative party has felt this year was when Starmer began demanding another national shutdown and Johnson temporarily refused. Conservative MPs suddenly remembered that there was a difference between their party and Labor.
More political votes would remind conservatives that they are comfortable with increasing the defense budget, while the current Labor Party instinctively is not. They would remind MPs of the differences between the two parties on immigration, law and order and other issues Johnson campaigned on in last year’s general election. They would also force labor divisions to the fore, as happened with Brexit last week. Starmer and his shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, have publicly disagreed on whether to vote for any Brexit deal, with the shadow cabinet splitting into two groups behind them. There are similar divisions in policy across the board.
Up to this point, Starmer has been able to avoid many infighting, not because his party has resolved all its bitter differences with the Corbyn years, but simply by avoiding making uncomfortable decisions about politics. Nor has he had much reason to do so: The pandemic has given the new leader an unusual amount of respite before he begins to grapple with tensions over domestic politics. At this point, Miliband had to speak out about what he stood for and make decisions about where Labor could go on education reform. Starmer’s main strategy has been to let the government lose the next election while the opposition simply talks about competition, not its own positions. Aides like Morgan McSweeney come from a tradition of trying to keep the party together, perhaps at the cost of pushing through sweeping changes that attract the attention of voters. Johnson is making it much easier for them to continue in this line.
For Conservative MPs to walk through different lobbies towards the Labor Party after a noisy debate in the Commons where the two parties articulate their differences on a policy, it would make a huge difference in morale, bringing them together again. It would also help cross-party relations if Johnson made it clear that he is not only deeply uncomfortable with some of the decisions he must make about Covid, but so are his ministers. Steve Baker, the vice president of the Covid Recovery Group, wants Johnson to control his health ministers in particular. He says: “I am deeply alarmed that health ministers are so brazen about using power to make deep inroads on our civil liberties. It is perfectly possible to accept as I do that freedom must be restricted to avoid harm to others but to have at the same time a spirit of humility. I hope Boris will restore some conservative caution to his ministers about the dramatic use of state power. “
Baker has exported much of the highly influential European Research Group model to the CRG. It’s surely not lost on Johnson that his Brexit campaign featured complaints about state meddling with bananas on a fairly moderate scale compared to telling people who they can and can’t have sex with, as well as whether Scottish eggs are a “substantial meal.” ”. Just as the conservative rebels are recycling the tactics of their Brexit campaigns, Johnson needs to find his new political bananas so he can rally his party and stop making mistakes.
• Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of the Spectator
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