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Boris Johnson Plunges His Tories Into an Identity Crisis

Tim Ross, Kitty Donaldson and Alex Morales
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Boris Johnson Plunges His Tories Into an Identity Crisis

(Bloomberg) -- Boris Johnson set out his hopes for easing Britain’s lockdown this week, and also his aching for a return to a more familiar life. “I want to make one thing clear,” he said. “I would love to play village cricket again.”

When it comes to the most quintessential of English games, the prime minister regards himself as a “D-league” sportsman who is outshone by both his brothers. But he knows that there’s no clearer sign that all is not well than the absence of men and women in white on village greens.

For many in Johnson’s Conservative Party, cricket is more than just a game. It represents tradition and national identity in an era of unprecedented upheaval. As the U.K. faces the pressures of the pandemic, Brexit’s trade disruption and strains on race relations, the desire for the genteel summer sport of the Tory heartlands speaks to a deeper yearning for simpler times.

Covid-19 is not just a health emergency and an economic disaster for the Conservatives. It’s turned into a crisis of political self-confidence that’s sparked an intense internal debate over the direction of Britain’s oldest and most successful party. For decades, the Tories have stood for libertarianism, fiscal prudence and the free market, and is now spending billions to rescue the economy. One senior Tory said the party was dangerously adopting “socialism.”

Read More: Johnson’s Team Is Broken by the Virus and Losing Faith

The big risk is that even this huge gamble might not work. Next week, Johnson is due to give a career-defining speech setting out his goals beyond the emergency. After three months of lockdown, it’s a vital chance to re-claim the agenda a little over six months since he delivered the biggest Tory majority since Margaret Thatcher in 1987.

Some Tories are worried that the prime minister has lost his grip and fear that the response to coronavirus has been badly bungled. Johnson himself was left fighting for his life while his reputation for managing the pandemic was battered. There’s also concern his government is out of touch with the public mood in its reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests that spread to the U.K.

In the words of one senior minister, Johnson’s message to the country must convey a strong sense of leadership. He must show that “we will come out of this better than we were, like after the war,” said the minister. “But without changing government.”

Across Europe, the virus has ripped through fiscal conservatism. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats have effectively abandoned spending constraints.

In the U.K., it’s not just the question of how to recover from what may be the worst recession for 300 years and repair national finances. Johnson has consistently ruled out a return to the spending cuts that defined the Tories after they took power in 2010, especially when they could hit the workers that kept the country going during coronavirus. He did so again in an interview with the Daily Mail this weekend.

But at stake is the very political purpose of Johnson’s party—and his future as its leader. An opinion poll published on Sunday found that the leader of the opposition Labour party, Keir Starmer, is now more popular.

The personalities jostling for influence over Johnson in the debate will shape the course of the economy for decades. Chief among them is Johnson’s powerful political adviser, Dominic Cummings. He is likely to hold more sway than any elected politician on what the prime minister eventually says, putting the fate of the party’s identity in the hands of a man who isn’t even a member.

How Cummings emerged as Britain’s eminence grise offers a clue to the approach he might adopt to tackle the recession now.

The mastermind of the 2016 campaign to leave the European Union, Cummings helped design last year’s “Get Brexit Done” election manifesto. It triumphed by persuading thousands of Labour voters to lend their support to the Tories.

On November 18 last year, Johnson was giving a speech to the Confederation of British Industry, the U.K.’s most influential business lobby. Behind the scenes, Cummings pushed hard for Johnson to deliver uncomfortable news to the CBI that day. The government was cancelling the promised cut in corporation tax, and would instead focus on spending more money on the National Health Service, traditionally a Labour priority.

At a stroke, the move blew up the conventional narrative that the Tories were in bed with big business and Cummings had what he wanted: voters watched the evening television news bulletins and saw a Conservative leader doing something different.

“The CBI thing showed Boris cares about the NHS and he is telling his mates in business they are going to have to pay for it,” a person familiar with the matter said.

Cummings is also credited with devising Johnson’s blueprint for “leveling up,” focusing investment in infrastructure projects on economically deprived regions of the country, often those districts that voted for Brexit. It was a message that carried the day in last December’s election.

Yet even Johnson’s election plans for 100 billion pounds ($123 billion) of investment pale by comparison to what came next.

A week after delivering his budget in March, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak was forced to rewrite his plans as the virus crisis engulfed the country and businesses closed down. He set up a furlough program to pay the wages of millions of workers and other facilities for hundreds of billions of pounds worth of loans to prop up failing companies. It was a far cry from the free market economics of the Thatcher era.

“What’s happened has been a massive shock to the economy, far worse than the 2008 crash,” a senior official in Johnson’s team said, arguing that “lame duck” companies needed as much support as possible. “It’s no good going for a free market attitude in this climate.”

The budget deficit in the current fiscal year, forecast to be around 55 billion pounds when Sunak took over, is now on course to top 270 billion pounds, according to the latest survey of economists compiled by the Treasury. That’s equal to about 14% of GDP, more than at any time since World War II.

Meanwhile, the national debt is approaching 2 trillion pounds, and has exceeded the size of the U.K. economy for the first time since the 1960s.

Read More: Sunak Says Bar for U.K. Company Bailouts Exceptionally High

Infighting over economic policies carries risks for the Tories. Senior Conservatives fear that if they mishandle the recession, after already presiding over the worst death toll in Europe, voters will flock back to a resurgent Labour Party under Starmer.

An Opinium poll for the Observer newspaper found that 37% of respondents thought the Labour leader would make the best prime minister compared with 35% for Johnson. The Tories have seen their overall lead over Labour narrow to just four percentage points from more than 20 points before the crisis.

But the scale of the financial outlay is alarming some traditionalists in Johnson’s party, who believe they cannot afford to mimic the approach of Labour and run up the country’s debts.

Graham Brady, the senior Tory who chairs the 1922 Committee of Conservative MPs and oversees party leadership contests, said how to define conservatism after the pandemic was a “big question” without a clear answer yet.

“There will necessarily be a place for a party that doesn’t want these levels of spending and borrowing to be the new normal and that surely must be the Conservative Party,” Brady said. “But the sums of money are so great that I worry it will take a very long time to come back to a reasonable state of affairs for the public finances.”

Another senior Tory puts it differently, arguing that the government’s response to the pandemic so far must stop even if that means brutal choices about where cuts to spending must fall.

Nothing should be off the table when it comes to balancing the books, said the influential Conservative, who declined to be named. The person added that it might need to include the previously unthinkable policy of scrapping Britain’s independent Trident nuclear weapons system.

David Lidington, who served as de facto deputy prime minister under Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, predicted Trident would survive. He said, though, the Ministry of Defence will face “some very hard questions” about what is required for protecting British security, and what is affordable. “There could be quite a fierce debate about for example the size of the army,” he said.

But within Johnson’s top team the argument—so far—is running the other way. Borrowing costs are at record low levels and there should be no hurry to pay back the debt, one cabinet minister points out, arguing the government should treat the vast sums it has borrowed in the same way as the U.K. managed its war debt in the second half of the 20th century. “There are plenty of buyers for high quality sovereign debt right now,” the minister said.

The priority is not to balance the books, the minister said, but instead to “build, build, build” with infrastructure projects and to get the country out of the hole it is in. By 2024, Britain will go back to the polls to choose the next government and the Conservatives will be judged on the state of the economy.

“It is a huge task but there has to be an upside to having had such an extensive support program,” the minister said. “In four years’ time we need to be able to show the produce.”

Recent focus groups by some of Johnson’s allies have shown a willingness among the public to pay more tax if it’s linked to funding for the health service. Equally, participants in focus group sessions will say that because businesses have had so much support from the state, it should be corporations that pick up the bill afterwards, a person involved said.

But what about the man in the middle? Johnson himself does not always find big decisions easy and dislikes telling people unpopular or unpalatable truths.

“He’s a middle of the road prime minister—he’s not an extremist,” said one person who works with him. “The prime minister believes in the private sector, but he sees that it needs some help.”

Another Tory who has worked with Johnson since the Brexit campaign says he is instinctively a free-market liberal, who is being nudged to the left by Cummings. If the adviser, who has faced criticism over his own conduct during lockdown, should leave, Johnson may revert to a more classic Tory position, the person said.

The Tories’ identity crisis is also playing out amid a wider unease in British society. Violence has broken out in the aftermath of Black Lives Matters protests, with public statues of British slave traders—and even wartime Conservative leader Winston Churchill—among the monuments targeted. Johnson insisted that British imperial history cannot be edited for political convenience.

Economically, the U.K. will experience an earthquake in its trade relationships at the end of the year when it finally leaves the EU’s single market and customs union. 

Nicky Morgan, who served in Johnson’s cabinet until standing down in February, said the Tories were facing a “massive” adjustment with politics in “a state of flux.”

“Conservatism as we saw it in December has had to alter,” said Morgan, the former culture secretary. “But that is in a way the secret of the Conservative party’s success—it has always been able to move itself on to where the country is. Occasionally we’ve not been able to do that as quickly, which is why we end up in opposition.”

For optimists in Johnson's team, the hope is the U.K. can harness a competitive advantage from leaving the EU’s regulatory regime and will bounce back stronger than other G-7 economies. Johnson’s personality will be key. His love of big projects and campaigning charisma will count for a lot to get the country going again, they say.

First, Johnson is desperate to give the public their freedom back. Throughout the pandemic peak he kept alcohol stores open and was reluctant to order people to stay in their homes. Now he is seeking to encourage the public to go out and shop in the stores that have been shut for months.

As for cricket, every Tory prime minister for the past 30 years has professed their love of the sport, and many of the party’s politicians are keen amateur players. None has had to impose a moratorium on playing.

By his own admission, Johnson hits the ball out of the ground with his first big shot before his innings generally ends quickly in failure. His party will be hoping he has more staying power in office.

(Adds newspaper interview in ninth paragraph, opinion poll in 10th.)

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