Monday 18 January 2021

Preserving Tory Authority

"We're going to abstain in Labour's support for Universal Credit", wrote Boris Johnson to his troops on the parliamentary party's WhatsApp group, "because people are going to be nasty to us on Twitter." Okay, I'm paraphrasing but Johnson's statement provided a half-arsed excuse for not reversing their planned UC cut. This was good enough for most - only six MPs voted with the opposition - and so the Tories find themselves smacked by a slipper of their own making. At least this time sundry backbenchers had the sense to keep their traps shut and not attack the low paid and the poor publicly.

If you are among the happy few who watch the Tories, you'll know there is something to Johnson's stated position that extra support will be available after the expiration of the £1,000 UC uplift in April. It's also probably fair to say Johnson himself doesn't know what this is going to be yet as reports keep trickling out of behind-the-scenes barneys between ministers. As widely reported, Dishy Rishi is leading the charge for a reversion to the mean (which, politically speaking, is also a reversion to the mean) and wants the increase scrapped. To soften the blow, he'll "offer" a £500 one-off payment - a sod off and don't bother us again if there ever was one. This still leaves UC recipients £10/week out of pocket, and also means anyone forced onto the dole as Downing Street's depression wreaks havoc after April are going to have to subsist on £75/week. The Tory instinct might be to hammer the poor, but some are wise to the political cost this now carries. There is significant pushback in cabinet against Superspreader Sunak, and many a red wall Tory have vented their displeasure over the 1922 Zoom chats. And so the Tories stumble on until March with this albatross honking about their necks.

It makes for a puzzling scene to be sure. An active, almost masochistic desire for pain. Except this time there's no Miss Whiplash, dingy basements, and exclusive snaps splashed across the Sunday papers. So why do we find the Tories groping toward the most damaging position to them? For one, it's a partial misreading of the situation. Cruelty, an actively cultivated characteristic of British politics is the monopoly property of the Tories and so for several generations of MPs socialised into politics between the Thatcher and Dave years the assumption is no one lost votes for kicking the poor. And this is probably the case for most Tories sat on fat majorities in gammon country, but, as we have seen for our red wall'ers matters are different, and it could make the difference between a Tory majority or not in 2024. But then again, the Tories have good reasons to be complacent. They have the press on their side. They drive the news agenda for broadcast journalism, and so enjoy a near-monopoly on popular political commentary. Memories are short and other issues are going to be at the forefront three years hence. Lastly, the opposition actively fights shy from contesting the fundamentals, even when matters are in their favour. Who wouldn't rest on their laurels if benefiting from a benign state of affairs such as this?

The second is genuine paralysis which, interestingly, the Tories' institutional advantage aggravates. There is no pressure on Johnson to come to a firm decision about Universal Credit, and so he can leave matters to his subordinates to bore it out among themselves. However, what Johnson is alive to is, despite the warm swaddling from the press, not ceding political initiative to Labour. As with Brexit and their atrocious handling of the pandemic, the consistency throughout both has been the preservation of government authority. This hasn't entailed competency, but reaffirming the chain of command with the executive at the centre of every decision. This authority cannot be and isn't ceded either to SAGE, sundry scientists, public health advocates, local government, and certainly not the leadership of the Labour Party. Johnson jealously guards this above all else because, as every government since Thatcher has shown, once the authority of a government disintegrates they're finished and there is no coming back. Therefore Johnson is willing to risk political pain because, not unreasonably, the supposition of conceding too much jeopardises his grip on power.

Yet, as we know, Johnson has backpedalled in the full view of the public on school meals and each of the three national lockdowns. He has managed to get away with the latter because the Tories, aided and abetted by Labour, have (successfully) taken the politics out of the Coronavirus crisis. When Johnson moves to introduce new rules and curbs on freedoms, these are not presented as or percieved by the public as personal defeats but a (belated) technocratic response to the situation. They're certainly not triumphs for Labour or people pressure, but because the politics of the pandemic are not up for discussion the Tories can and do present themselves as responding to the moment. Hence, Johnson continues to be unpopular among those he's already unpopular among, but where it counts - the base, the swing voters blind to the politics of the situation, his authority is preserved.

Political science isn't rocket science, and the key to challenging the Tory hold on the polls is, well, challenging the Tories. Yet Labour creeps about terrified of its own oppositional shadow, not wanting to offend or being seen to "play politics". From the off the Tories have bent the Coronavirus crisis to their political will, while Keir Starmer thinks the laurels are going to fall into his lap for playing fair and keeping schtum. It's pitiful.

And so Johnson isn't about to cede control on social security, Covid, or anything else for that matter. This makes him and his government highly vulnerable to attack. Rigid structures are always the easiet to break. But instead of the criticisms from Labour crowding around its base, and directing public opinion into pushing the whole rotten Tory edifice over there is a gentle breeze of process criticisms. And tumbleweed.

Image Credit


david walsh said...

And amazingly, showing their utter lack of comprehension of even fairly recent history, it seems Rishi and co are looking at the abolition of Council Tax and wrapping this up with what was stamp duty, based on new residential valuation, and dubbed, tentatively, a "property levy". Cue, harrumphing in the Daily Mail's property pages, and soon, I guess, for the front pages, we see the recreation of all the old arguments about the poll tax - even the famous widow who does not want to leave her large, solely occupied house, for sentimental reasons makes a return.

Blissex said...

«while Keir Starmer thinks the laurels are going to fall into his lap for playing fair and keeping schtum. It's pitiful.»

That's realistic actually: many UK "marginal" voters, like most, don't vote *for* the opposition, but to throw out the government party if they "screw up" (on their vote-moving issue). If in 2024 the Conservatives screw up, like with the 1990s property crash, then New, New Labour has a chance.

But then the opposition has a chance in that case *regardless* of their political positioning, regardless of whether they have been "playing fair and keeping schtum". In 1997 marginal voters were so outraged by the crash and negative equity that they would have voted for Pol Pot or Gualtieri to punish the Conservatives.
The "tory liberal" line of Keir Starmer may be motivated by the desire to attribute to it the possible victory in 2024, and then claim for it a mandate, even if the victory, like in 1997 (and 2001 and 2005) were actually due to the desire to punish the Conservatives.

Anonymous said...

And we have the highest Covid death rate per capita in the world.