Where next for the Prime Minister?
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his partner Carrie Symonds arrive at 10 Downing Street on the morning after the general election in London, Britain, December 13, 2019 [Alamy]
Boris Johnson’s agenda was eclipsed by Covid. But with Britain beginning to emerge from the pandemic, the clock is ticking for the government to deliver the changes it promised in 2019. Mark Wallace, chief executive of ConservativeHome, provides his analysis of the challenges facing the Prime Minister.
When Boris Johnson took to the stage on the morning of 13 December 2019 to proclaim victory in the previous day’s election, and unveil his new majority administration, his political objective and message were clear. The podium, the backdrop, indeed just about every surface in the room in Westminster’s Queen Elizabeth II Centre, proclaimed “The People’s Government”.
The victory was the product of tight, targeted and disciplined, messaging in the campaign. That morning, the Prime Minister didn’t even have to complete his own sentences when repeating his key election pledges – the number of new hospitals (40), the number of new police officers (20,000) or the thing that was going to get done (Brexit) – because the jubilant audience did it for him.
His speech made clear there would be no missed beat between polling day and implementation of those promises. The campaign that began by seeking to persuade voters to give Johnson and the Tories a chance would now press on in government to assure its new electoral coalition that the gamble had been worthwhile.
With a cadre of Vote Leave campaigners running Downing Street, the early months and years in power had been war gamed in the same way as the prorogation battle and the election itself. There was a lot to do before the next election came around – and they intended to hit the ground running.
Man plans, and God laughs, as the old saying goes.
Neither Johnson nor his audience had any inkling there were mere weeks available before the world would be turned on its head. Almost two years later, Covid-19 has caused as much disruption in government as in every other walk of life.
It’s no surprise the government’s original agenda was sideswiped by the onrush of Covid, by the outbreak of the virus in Downing Street, and by the ongoing waves of medical, social and economic disruption the pandemic continues to unleash.
A disaster response is reactive by definition, and there have been precious few chances to get on the front foot.
As his party gathers for its first in-person conference of this parliament, the Prime Minister will now seek to regain the initiative – an imperative driven by reasons of both character and political strategy.
His character – even the somewhat more cautious edition we’ve seen since his own brush with Covid – does not take kindly to being forced to react to others’ agendas, be they political opponents or microbes. If anything, he likes to put other people (allies and enemies) off balance, bouncing around ideas in unexpected ways, floating variously exciting or alarming possibilities, and, most of all, setting the agenda squarely on his terms.
The virus has denied him that opportunity, and he will instinctively hope to emerge from its shadow at long last. It may be too soon, or too troubled a time, to declare, Reagan-style, that “it’s morning again in the UK”, but the Prime Minister and his party dearly want at least to be able to point out the first fingers of light heralding an imminent new dawn.
Conference offers the chance for a premiership forged on the campaign trail to get back on its soapbox
The strategic situation also demands a convincing demonstration of forward movement – and urgently.
The government already had a huge challenge on its hands, back when it was newly formed, to show in the time available before the next election that its voters’ lives had changed for the better as a result of voting Conservative. Dominic Cummings’ low estimation of the capacity of the British state to decide, still less deliver, anything promptly meant that everyone knew at the outset that the four or five years available were a narrow window in which to materially change the lives of millions of people for the better via work, public services, infrastructure and other advances.
Since then, a full third of the parliamentary term has been lost to Covid, and that’s assuming it runs the full stretch before the next election. As soon as possible, ministers need to reset the agenda to focus on delivering – and showing off – the real changes that individuals, families, towns and cities were promised in 2019.
There is widespread understanding that Covid had to take priority, and that such a titanically costly event means things cannot all be as they were previously expected to be; but that leeway cannot be relied upon forever. As soon as it seems like an excuse, rather than an explanation, it will already be too late.
It simply will not cut the mustard for the Tories to stand up in 2023 or 2024 and say to voters: “We’re drafting legislation that will change the regulations that will allow a new industry to open a gigafactory in a town, which might potentially be yours... in a while.” Instead people want to see ground broken, factories opening, investment coming in and their quality of life and surroundings materially improved.
Therefore this conference has a crucial and challenging role: to provide some form of bridge from the chaos, reaction and recrimination of the pandemic era of politics into a post-pandemic world in which the government swiftly gets on with delivering as much of its initial promises as time and budgets now allow.
Covid won’t be forgotten or ignored – how could it be? – but there’s a need to start putting the worst of the crisis in the rear view mirror, to revert expectations to the idea there are a range of issues to deal with at any one time, and to get on getting on with the rest of the job the government set for itself.
The first task for the Prime Minister and his colleagues is to communicate the lessons of the pandemic and how they will be incorporated into “peacetime” thinking. The flipside of that, of course, is to make clear how and when the various extraordinary powers and infringements on normal life will be banished to a case labelled, “In case of emergency, break glass.”
The second task is to delineate the beginning of a new era, with a clear definition and an appropriate tone. The virus is part of life now, but for most it is not the sum total of our lives; it is a consideration, but it is not the sole thought in our minds.
Thanks to the genius of scientists and the efficiency of the vaccine rollout, it is becoming one manageable problem among many, rather than the defining catastrophe before which all other priorities must immediately and indefinitely bend.
Just as we all had to adjust to the logic of a new reality in the spring of 2020, now we must do the same for these new circumstances, which will bring difficulties of their own.
The third task is to show, with urgency and practicality, the work that is being done to fulfil the original five-year mission of “The People’s Government” in the three years that remain.
It has not been lost on the Conservative Party that the Tees Valley electoral revolution has been sustained, expanded and deepened, thanks to a mayor, Ben Houchen, who has relentlessly focused on converting promises into visible, concrete, real-world results. Houchen himself may well take the stage in Manchester, and it will be interesting to note to what extent the cabinet echoes his approach of campaigning incumbency.
The test for the Conservatives will come when their 2019 electoral coalition is invited back to the polling stations to judge whether the Tories deserve a second term or not. Millions will decide based on whether their home, their job, their high street, their community, and their country look and feel tangibly better.
It might be a snap test on the day, but the groundwork to pass it must be set right now. After so long effectively silenced by the pandemic, this conference offers the chance for a premiership forged on the campaign trail to get back on its soapbox – and not before time.
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