Unity is strength in politics, but also rare. All governments contain divisions. All prime ministers learn to live disloyally.
For most of the time Boris Johnson has been dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, Conservative MPs muttered discontent in the background. They have agitated against closures, demanded more spending and resisted tax increases.
The prime minister’s awe-inspiring victory in the last election gives him a cushion, 80 seats deep, to absorb the rebellions of the Commons, but he can still be damaged if all the discontent starts simultaneously. A large majority generates indiscipline, creating a group of MPs who languish in the dark, unafraid of Labor and feeling abandoned by their leader.
The divisions in Johnson’s ranks also reflect the diverse coalition of voters he assembled in 2019, using Brexit as an electoral bridge from wealthy Conservative territories in the south to former Labor strongholds in the North and Midlands. Those voters channel divergent demands through their parliamentarians. The “red wall”, with shallow electoral foundations, needs to be propped up with money. The Treasury says some of the revenue should come from taxes levied on the darker parts of the coalition, which are reluctant to pay.
Those competing budget imperatives limit Rishi Sunak’s room for maneuver before the post-pandemic reconstruction journey has begun. Downing Street is eager to build things in slums; the chancellor wants to fill the gaps in public finances. That’s a likely source of future conflict (leading to louder speculation about Sunak’s ambitions for the top job).
By maximum strength across the unit, the Johnson administration should already be weakened. However, the conservative poll rating is tough and the party mood is upbeat. Above all that is the rebound of vaccines, and conservatives speculate that Johnson’s handling of the crisis will be remembered more for quick blows than for earlier complacency and preventable deaths.
It’s no coincidence that No. 10 has projected more professional demeanor since Dominic Cummings left the building last year, though policies haven’t changed. The difference, insiders say, is that the Vote Out spirit of perpetual campaign aggression, inherited from the Brexit referendum, was not conducive to practical government.
Additionally, Cummings had his own projects and methods, which matched Johnson’s worldview, but were not always his priorities. The senior advisor did not see himself as a subordinate. It took too long for the prime minister to realize that he was the vehicle and not the driver. That has been fixed. Now it is clearer that Johnson sets the agenda, but it is not clear what that agenda will be: something to do with “leveling up”; something green.
Lowering the sociopath count to 10 has improved the government’s image, but it has not solved Johnson’s problem of indecision and administrative negligence. You will continue to access conflicting advice in successive meetings. He will continue to undermine his allies, then act hurt and shocked when they complain about the betrayal.
A shakeup, projected as a total reboot of government, is expected in Whitehall in early summer. Johnson needs to get rid of the incompetents who were given ministerial portfolios as a reward for their subordination (goodbye then, Gavin Williamson) and rehire the veteran secretaries of state who could run departments without causing cascading crises (welcome back, Sajid Javid).
But reorganizations are fraught with risk. Demotion breeds enmity. It will be difficult to clean up a cabinet that was assembled in a spirit of maximum Brexit fanaticism without sending the hardliners into embittered exile. The Conservative Party is only a few duff poll results away from concluding that its leader is a dumb liberal who must be dragged further to the right or replaced by someone already there.
Judging from recent experience, the conservative mood, currently on the rise, will return to panic, gloom and talk of regicide before the year is out. And then maybe he’ll be an overconfident braggart again. That is the usual rhythm.
However, a pattern of volatility and civil strife has not prevented the party from monopolizing power in Westminster for more than a decade. It sometimes makes things more difficult for Labor because the news-generating and most effective opposition work has been sent to the ruling party. A blue-on-blue riot drowns the red leader. That’s partly a legacy of the Brexit and the Corbyn years. The opposition was consumed by its own civil war and had no position on the issue that dominated politics through two elections.
But before that, in the coalition years, Labor struggled to make itself relevant as well. The dynamics of David Cameron’s association with the Liberal Democrats took up too much political and media bandwidth, and the reaction it provoked on the right, as disgruntled Tories made common cause with Ukip.
At the height of the New Labor era, it was the Conservatives who were pushed to the margins by a government with full-spectrum cultural dominance. Tony Blair was more concerned with rebellion in his own banks or revenge on his chancellor than with anything a Conservative leader said.
The ability of a government to supply its own opposition is now being demonstrated to great effect by the Scottish National Party, in the form of a gruesome dispute between the current prime minister and her predecessor. That spectacle could affect the SNP’s performance in the May elections in Holyrood, but no one expects the party to relinquish control.
In England, Labor still has regional and municipal strongholds. Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham are almost certain to win London and Manchester in the spring voting. But in Westminster, the Conservatives are striking a comfortable balance between government and domestic opposition. Johnson’s lack of adherence to any belief is viewed as a moral flaw by his critics, but most voters are not picky about doctrinal rigor. The precedent suggests that they are also relaxed about dissent within a ruling party, as long as it does not become a spectacle of dysfunction. Ideological incoherence is tolerated (if noticeable). Incompetence is not.
The division brings governments down when the ruling party is more interested in fighting itself than in anything else. Sometimes the deputies are so exhausted and disillusioned that they begin to imagine the opposition as a respite; a chance to regroup. The Conservatives got to that point in 1997, but only after 18 years in office. They don’t give up power lightly. Their disputes over policies and principles are contained by the general ambition to rule and a sense of the right to rule. Winning is your business; fighting is for pleasure. With Labor, it is often the other way around.
There will be more cycles of infighting and reconciliation among conservatives. Johnson’s position will look alternately precarious and untouchable. However, a lesson from history is that the conservative divide does not necessarily end in defeat. Unity can be a strength, but there are times when disunity is not a weakness.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism