The Conservatives, like many major parties, are a coalition. There are splits between authoritarians and libertarians, interventionists and Thatcherites, nativists and globalists.
Yet perhaps the most consequential fissure is the gulf between the prime minister’s lofty visions and his short-term gambits to escape a pressing problem or please a target audience. Or to put it another way, the split between Today Johnson and Future Johnson.
This faultline has been obvious in the current row with the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol, which Boris Johnson signed but does not wish to enforce.
Much of this comes down to temperament. The prime minister is a man who has for decades lived by his considerable wits, charisma and cunning. This trust in his ability to find a way out of every scrape means he sees a problem deferred as a problem solved. Whatever difficulties he bequeaths, he is confident Future Johnson will solve them. The Covid crisis is an example of the rewards and risks of this outlook. Very early, Johnson placed all his chips on the vaccine. It was a good bet but had it not come on stream until spring — a far from inconceivable outcome — the public might be judging him differently.
For good or ill, Brexit has ensured Johnson’s place as one of the UK’s most consequential leaders. But it is only one reason for his significance and his party is remembering what a rare electoral asset he is. He has reoriented the Tories’ economic outlook and electoral coalition. He did not devise their northern strategy but he delivered it. One may quarrel with the blatant, “elect a Tory, get a factory” approach but not with the goal of an economy that works for all the nation.
So it is easy to see why Johnson backs himself. Nor is temporising always unwise. Delay can sometimes defuse an issue. But it cannot be an overarching strategy. While this approach has often served him well it is ultimately a serious threat to his legacy.
Brexit offers the most glaring case of temporising. Opponents would argue that is true of the whole project. But even for supporters, the risks are clear. Such a sharp shift requires detailed planning and a clear economic strategy, neither of which are apparent. New trade deals adding an additional 0.02 per cent to national income over 15 years are not enough.
The threat to the Union is the largest risk. Losing Scotland would render Johnson a consequential leader in the way Lord North is famed for losing America. Unsurprisingly, his instinct is to defer a reckoning as long as possible, ideally beyond his premiership, and hope the separatist tide recedes. It may work, but denying an independence referendum could equally bolster nationalist sentiment.
The row over the Northern Ireland protocol is a classic clash of the temporal Johnsons. The UK is right that the EU is being unnecessarily intractable on an issue which calls for pragmatism over checks on goods coming from Britain. But one does not have to think the EU is right to know this was predictable from the moment Johnson signed a treaty he did not intend to honour.
Keen to avoid a no-deal Brexit ahead of an election, he gambled that he could accept the rules now and fudge them later. Some compromise ought to be possible but it will not be as sweeping as he would wish. He also sees domestic political advantage in being seen to stand up to the EU. But each time he tries to skirt the rules or threatens to breach a treaty obligation, the loss of trust makes it harder to dig himself out of the next hole. There are many other issues to resolve, not least financial services or EU work permits for British citizens where UK jobs depend on his winning better terms down the line.
Brexit is not the only example of this trait. Johnson failed to place India on the red list as Covid cases rose drastically, out of a more immediate fear of undermining his visit to the country to secure a new trade partnership. The Delta variant is now the UK’s dominant Covid strain. This week’s delay to the end of lockdown was the price.
He is also writing cheques for Future Johnson to honour with exuberant pledges made with little thought on how to deliver them; a directions now, details later approach which is a recipe for disappointment. He is committed to levelling up the regions. But the recent and wise appointment of Neil O’Brien to drive delivery is proof that nearly two years on, it remains a pledge in search of a plan.
Similarly, Johnson has committed to a 78 per cent cut in carbon emissions by 2035. Again, this is the right policy but there is little sign that he has worked through the true costs and pain of getting there. An eco-optimist, he prefers to focus on tech solutions. But a recent row over plans for a new coal mine in Cumbria is an example of the incoherence which bedevils high-level promises without firm foundations.
The list goes on. Johnson told voters he had a clear plan to solve the social care crisis. But he still has not decided how to fund it, so in fact he did not.
Perhaps his luck will hold. But he has a chance to shape Britain’s future for a generation and he risks wasting it with unserious short-termism.
Remainers will argue that he has already committed the fatal mistake. But allies also know that long-term success depends on finding structures to slow the white-knuckle ride of Johnson’s two temporal states before he finally finds a crash even he cannot evade.
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