This has been a big week in British politics. If that makes you fear you have missed something, don’t worry. You have not. For that is just the point. This was an important week for Boris Johnson’s government to start trying to regain control of the political agenda. But the Conservative effort has not got off to a good start. That failure matters, because it will shape our politics.
Within the next two years, there will be another general election. This month’s local elections confirmed that it will not be an easy one for the Tory party. The Tories lost seats to Labour and the Liberal Democrats and ceded hard-won ground in Scotland, Wales and England. Since it is likely to be the last one of substance in this parliament, the recent Queen’s speech needed to be focused on the general election. Yet it turned out to have very little focus at all.
The speech’s aimless approach was revealing. There were a lot of announcements, but no election narrative. This says a lot about Mr Johnson’s party today. The prime minister talks incessantly, but does little that lasts. His new programme is a ragbag. It reflects a party that has become unable to articulate, in any unified way, what it is in government to achieve. It has no project beyond staying in power.
The Tory party today is best understood as a loose and volatile alliance between overlapping rival groups. The rivalries start at the top, between a prime minister who wants to spend and a chancellor who does not. But, at a time when economic hardship is mounting so fast and likely to continue, the bulk of the cabinet remain extreme public spending cutters.
All this helps to explain the announcement made on Thursday that 91,000 civil service jobs must be axed so that taxes can be cut. Of all the priorities facing Britain, slashing the public service by a fifth is one that should be at the back of the queue. The cut is ideological, arbitrary, unspecific and, in the context of current national and international needs and government commitments, it is almost mystifying.
It is hard to square the cut with the need to cope with such realities as spiralling welfare demands, the need to rebuild the NHS or to lay the foundations of social care reform. It is perverse when seen in the context of the delays and bureaucracy facing business and industry as a result of Brexit. It makes sense only as a headline flash of rhetoric for the party’s right wing. It solves precisely nothing, including the Tory predicament exposed in the local elections.
It was significant that the former health and foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt chose Friday to break cover and offer the Tory party a glimpse of a less bankrupt approach. Acknowledging the scale of the task that the Tory party now faces, Mr Hunt drew a direct connection between cuts in the NHS and tragedies like the Mid-Staffs scandal. The topicality of his warning that the party faces defeat if it offers voters a choice between a properly funded NHS and tax cuts was unmistakable on a day when the government had just done precisely that.
This week was important because of Mr Johnson’s failure. Just like any entitled Bourbon he has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. He seems determined to be the author of his own defeat. His failure signals further Tory defeats at the polls, renewed anxiety on the backbenches, and a possible leadership contest, in which Mr Hunt is likely to stand. In such grim economic times, the Tory party’s fortunes may no longer be in their own hands, but in those of the opposition parties and, most of all, those of the public.