Monday 6 June 2022

Lurching from Crisis to Crisis

By 211 votes to 148, Boris Johnson has survived his long-promised no confidence vote. Speaking Monday afternoon, the ever-loyal Jacob Rees-Mogg said the Prime Minister would carry on even if the margin of victory was one vote. A margin of 63 then is more than enough. If we've learned anything about Johnson since he took office, he'll cling to power like a limpet. But this doesn't mean things won't stop getting more difficult. For six months, the polls have reported leads for Labour. Numbers reflecting the blight Johnson is inflicting on his party more than enthusiasm for whatever Keir Starmer is offering. These will not change. Nor will the inescapable fact that the Tories are now more divided than they were under Theresa May. Looking at her no confidence vote in late 2018, she won 200 votes to 117. In today's parliamentary money, that would be 229 to 134 - significantly better than what Johnson managed. This means problems for the legislative programme should Johnson whip for anything controversial, and plenty of hay-making for the opposition parties. More wounding still is what this does to the position of the Conservatives in the country. Polling is consistent with almost two-thirds saying Johnson should have resigned over PartyGate. 211 MPs have thumbed their nose at the public and told them their sacrifices didn't matter, and that obeying the law is an optional extra for the higher ups. It's a danger some, but not enough, Tory MPs are aware of. And by the same brush they too will be tarred.

Johnson limps on. He's not "fucked", as the never-right have pronounced. But he is wounded and the survival rates for Conservative leaders after a no confidence vote are not in Johnson's favour. How did we did we end up in this situation? Events, dear boy, events. You don't need me to recount how Johnson has played a most favourable political hand badly. There has been nothing stopping him, once the emergency moment of the pandemic eased, from storming ahead with his promises. But instead he's left his dangerous subordinates to run riot with stupid and ruinous policies while letting the good will of getting Brexit done and the vaccination campaign drain away. Thinking about the milestones of the last year that have done for him: the National Insurance rise, the effort to save Owen Paterson from the chop, and then the PartyGate debacle, one is struck by how they're unforced errors. But are they?

Long term tendencies work their way through the actions and activities of politicians. Sometimes they're conscious of it, but mostly they're oblivious. This is true of Johnson and his coterie as much as anyone else. On the conscious side of things, there has been the statecraft that revealed itself in the 2019 manifesto. Do nothing. That is talk up a good storm and let loose the faintest of breezes. Johnson was able to bulldoze through his Brexit as promised, but the rest? Instead of addressing this country's severe regional imbalances, nothing has been done. Even worse, once the pandemic got underway and the Tories had to step in to nationalise the UK's wage bill, abolish conditionalities for social security while bumping up payments, solve homelessness overnight, and offer billions in support for businesses big and small, they have done everything to row this back. Not just in terms of reversing these schemes, but clamping down on people's expectations. It's not enough to cut support for Johnson and friends, they want to cut the expectation of support. Going through the last two years, whether it's refusing to sack Dominic Cummings, refusing to act on free school meals, refusing to implement circuit-breaking lockdowns, refusing to support all the self-employed, refusing to help on energy bills, refusing to let Owen Paterson go, refusing to take responsibility for PartyGate, and even refusing to save Geronimo the bloody Alpaca, the Tories have tried simplifying politics by encouraging people not to expect anything from it. And doing nothing comes with costs, as polling and recent elections attest. If do-nothing statecraft is the game, it's a requirement Johnson is particularly well suited to.

Then there is the wider problem the Tories have, their long-term decline. There are two aspects of this complex process of immediate concern to us. The first is how Johnson was instrumental in building and holding together a voter coalition of mainly the old and the propertied. They're more susceptible to right wing, authoritarian politics, and they're not replacing themselves like-for-like as they pass on. Johnson's achievement was to consolidate what May mobilised, but the legacy he bequeaths his successor, whenever that may be, is that the Tories are boxed in to supporting this shrinking constituency with much weaker purchase outside it. The second symptom of Tory decline is a certain lack of rootedness. Historically, the Conservative Associations were, believe it or not, more likely to be the preserve of women than men, and these provided not just an army of activists but in-between elections they doubled up as semi-charitable and community-minded concerns. The typical Tory member was not quite the village busy-body, but they were rooted in place and kept the Conservative flame burning. The super safe shire and rural seats are the fruits of decades of this low-level activity. But today the party's body politic is not only much reduced, but it is more male, more inactive, much less community-minded, and tend toward privatised lives. The party's demographics therefore reflect a real enough trend in the wider population, but not one that allows for the Tories to have local presences beyond the efforts of activist leaflet drops.

This absence of rootedness doubles up in its relationship to British business. As argued here many times, the core Tory concern is the preservation of capitalist relations of production first, and the continued dominance of the City of London second (hence, it's helpful to see the Tory Brexit wars inflected by debates within the City about whether its interests were best served by remaining in the EU or being a financial and commercial clearing house outside its jurisdiction). The destruction of the ad hoc Keynesian arrangements of the post-war settlement, the eradication of huge quantities of industrial capital and the diversion of some into property and finance as increasingly important vectors of accumulation led to a looser relationship between the party and the class it serves. The superficial dynamism and strength of speculative capital characterised more transactional arrangements among the Conservatives and its well-heeled supporters. The donors expected bangs for their bucks, which the Tories were too happy to indulge. It meant, after Thatcher, a pattern of politics even more short-termist and myopic. Interestingly, this afforded the party more political autonomy as it flitted between individual money bags, leading it into self-immolating and counter-productive trajectories than one might expect. Structurally speaking the Conservatives were complacent. Decadent even. The do-nothing strategy of the Tories and the indolent figure of Johnson himself are best fits for a party running on the vapours of the past.

The problem for any institution with withering linkages is a propensity to crisis. As such, the Conservatives have long been a stranger to the stability it stands for, both in the party's internally fractious operations and the divisive damage it inflicts on the society it governs. The no confidence vote and Johnson's disastrous leadership are examples of both, and because the social position of the party hasn't changed there will be many more crises to come.

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Ken said...

I’ve been a bit conflicted about what result I wanted. In the end, a wounded PM with his authority shredded would be the best result, say 100 rebels. This outcome outdid my modest ambition. What next however? The Tories don’t have much time to try again and embed a new leader before another election. If they were being sensible, they would back Hunt, who has shown that he could quietly get on with shredding the state from his time at the NHS. The commentators mention Truss, who only just just stands a rung above Dorries as competent. Hunt of course comes with his baggage as a Remainer, so as the Brexit glue begins to weaken the Tories begin to decompose.
I don’t you if you saw the clip of the, presumably Royalist and probably pro- Brexiteers, booing at Johnson on Saturday. The commentator said “I wasn’t expecting that.” Last night I saw him on BBC trying to push is “get on with the job nonsense,” and the interviewer interrupted him three times to say that that’s all very well but not the point. The livestream of the cabinet this morning showed the same stuff, so we can expect more pointed questions from journalists. I’ve not counted the numbers, but I’m fairly sure that the phrase “habitual liar” has been repeated more in the last week than usual. In one way, it’s difficult not to gloat, however, I’d obviously have preferred a different outcome to 2017 and not have to gloat at all.
On a personal note, I turned up at my doctors’ practice at 7.40 am yesterday to get in the queue for appointments, which are by phone. At 8 am there was a line of mostly older people and I could hear the muttered complaints about this. It was all I could do to not shout, “This ward voted Tory in May, so if you vote Tory, you’ve got what you voted for;the politics of self-harm!”

georgesdelaatour said...

You say the old are more susceptible to authoritarianism, presumably compared to the young. Do you have any evidence for this assertion?

The best way to assess someone’s authoritarianism is their attitude to free speech and censorship. If you support strong restriction on what can be said, you are definitionally an authoritarian. End of.

This report is interesting:

They divide attitudes into five broad categories, with “free speech fighters” at one end, and “freedom from harm fighters” at the other. In general, the over 55s are the most pro-free speech demographic. They go on to note:

“The biggest difference is in terms of political identity. Free speech fighters are more likely to be Conservative than Labour voters (66% vs 10%) and Leave supporters rather than Remainers (67% vs 24%). Those in the freedom-from-harm fighters group are overwhelmingly Remainers rather than Leavers (85% vs 11%), and more likely to be Labour than Conservative voters (51% vs 16%).”

If you looked at support for / opposition to Covid lockdowns, and support for / opposition to compulsory vaccination, I suspect it would split a similar way, with the most authoritarian attitudes being found among Labour Remainers.

As an oldie, my own views are very libertarian on free speech and somewhat authoritarian on lockdowns (provided all measures have robust sunset clauses). This means I loathe Nadine Dorries’ Online Harm Bill. But would a Labour government give me less of that sort of thing? I suspect not.

Old Trot said...

A useful analysis in the second half of this article of the Tory Party's relationship with speculative finance capital . But how different, if at all, would be the real, beyond the anodyne superficial super patriotism, pro NATO, pro nukes, and balanced budget, slogans, 'future governing mission' of a newly restored, unfettered, neo Blairite Right supremacy , Labour Party, to the Tory model Phil describes ? Very little I would suggest. If some 'Big Billionaire Donors' do eventually hove into view , as Mandelson and Blair no doubt keep promising Starmer and co, it will most likely be the same hedge fund rentier spivs as have funded the Tories, not a different subset of the UK capitalist class - like the ever-declining manufacturing sector capitalists for instance. With Mandelson's long dodgy ties to Russian gangster oligarchs, one cannot even claim that a future NuLabor2 government (though most likely in coalition with the Lib Dems or even also with the SNP) , would avoid this important aspect of the Torys overall corruption.

It's all very well revelling at the visible unravelling of the Tory government , under a welter of corruption and mismanagement (a la the MacMillan and later Thatcher/Major governments) , but for the ever more impoverished poorer mass of voters hoping for real 'levelling up', policies , and the re-funding of our free NHS and local government services, a now entirely neoliberal Labour Party offers no hope whatsoever . We now live in as close to a classic 'facade democracy' as could be imagined. That cynical old anarchist slogan of " don't bother to vote - whoever you vote for , they still get in ", is now all too true. Such a huge political space will not remain unfilled forever - and if the rest of Europe and the US is any guide, it doesn't look like it is the even mildly , entirely middle class, 'radical Left' which will be capable of filling it.

David Parry said...


Whether one thinks people are too easily offended has nothing to do with one's attitude to free speech. To posit otherwise implies that expressing outrage over bigotry is somehow an infringement upon free speech rather than an extension of it. Moreover, those who complain about the supposed hypersenstivity of members of minority groups are, ironically enough, pretty touchy about being called racists, sexists, homophobes, transphobes or whatever.

georgesdelatour said...

I think the people who murdered the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists WERE too easily offended. It would have been better if they’d had thicker skins. That’s the line that mustn’t ever be crossed. If they’d simply called the cartoonists Islamophobes, that would have been fine by me.

I think the Muslim parents of Parkfield Community School in Birmingham should be free to protest against pro-transgender schoolbooks, if that’s how they feel. And you’re free to call them transphobes, if that’s how you feel (though I recommend actually reading the schoolbooks in question first).

I think people should be allowed to see “The Lady of Heaven” if they want to. I also think Sunni Muslims can call the film Sunni-phobic if that’s how they feel (though I recommend they actually see the film before protesting about its contents).

I watched the allegedly pro-pedophile film “Cuties”. I don’t think it’s a masterpiece, and I don’t think it’s pro-pedophile. I’ve read critiques of the film which I disagree with, but written by people who’ve actually seen it. I’ve read far more written by people who obviously haven’t.

What I don’t like is a class of moral guardians deciding on our behalf what we can and can’t say or read or watch. Which is why I don’t like the Dorries Bill.