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There Are No Good Tories

Today's efforts to bring down Boris Johnson highlight divisions among the Tories, but one thing unifies them above it all: running the country in the interests of the super-rich.

Boris Johnson smiles during the meeting with the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani inside 10 Downing Street on 24 May 2022 in London, England. (Matt - Dunham - WPA Pool / Getty Images)

The ongoing crisis of the Tory Party yesterday produced its most dramatic change of personnel yet, as Health Secretary Sajid Javid and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak resigned within minutes of each other. Behind the swirl of dreadful allegations and the relentless social media drama, their departures reinforced the strategic bind the Conservatives now find themselves in.

The tensions inside the Tory Party have been waiting to blow up for some time. Boris Johnson has survived up until now, despite the worsening chaos of his administration, largely because no other single challenger has been able to offer a coherent, strategic alternative to Johnson’s tactical incoherence. If and when he departs from Number Ten, without an obvious alternative—and there are easily five or six senior Tories who could plausibly step up here—those divisions are likely to be made stark.

They stem from the eventual failure of the Cameron/Osborne resolution to 2008 crisis. This depended on the restoration of the financial system’s power and status, primarily through a realignment towards China; Britain’s continued membership of the EU, to provide easy access to the largest markets on the planet; and austerity at home to provide the guarantee that the British state could always bail the system out in the event of further crisis.

No part of that project remains standing, and the Johnson ‘solution’ has proved at best entirely temporary—driven by the opportunism of Brexit and the frantic desire (as both Javid and Sunak noted in their resignation letters) to stop Jeremy Corbyn. Johnson was elected on a thin manifesto, which itself was largely designed to head off the more popular elements of Corbyn’s domestic economic programme—Johnson’s second announcement on becoming Prime Minister in summer 2019, for example, was to immediately promise more funding for schools, blunting Labour’s attack. Johnson’s aversion to austerity—claiming, in 2019, to have always secretly opposed it—and his willingness to ignore the neoliberal rules when it suited him marked him out as someone willing to break with decades of Tory and Treasury dogma—if only for the purposes of his own political career.

Tensions inside the new government in 2019 very quickly became apparent. As steered by then-chief advisor Dominic Cummings, one of Johnson’s primary goals in the first months of his administration, was to subordinate the Treasury to the demands of Number Ten, attempting to control Javid’s political advisors—eventually having one of them frogmarched out of Downing St by the police—and pushing Javid into resignation. Rishi Sunak was appointed by Boris Johnson in early 2020, apparently in the belief that he would be a more malleable figure.

Cummings, at least, had a strategic vision of sorts for the British state: an admirer of Singapore’s model of government, he has argued, over many years, for a more economically interventionist state, able to support new industries and new technologies, operating outside of lumbering multinational institutions like the EU. This hasn’t been the dominant view of government inside the Tory Party for a long period of time, at least since Margaret Thatcher. But post-Brexit, and facing a world that is far less stable with other governments far less inclined to stick to the neoliberal rules, something like this vision has come to occupy a significant space in Tory thinking. Ben Houchen, Metro Mayor for Teesside, has perhaps given it the clearest formulation, talking up the need for government support for new industries like carbon capture and storage.

But this big-government Toryism never commanded majority support in the party. Battered now also by Covid and the ‘cost of living crisis’ that herald a far more uncertain future, there is no readily available and widely-supported economic plan that the Tory Party can plausibly deliver. The Sunak/Javid wing is talking up its fiscal conservatism, meaning a focus on government borrowing and threatening austerity in preference to more spending or tax cuts. But the Tories’ rather shaky new base in the ‘Red Wall’ will not tolerate further austerity—as assorted 2019 intake MPs have made clear—while the Tories’ old base in the shires will not tolerate higher taxes to pay for the spending.

That leaves more borrowing by government as the alternative, and Nadhim Zahawi, Liz Truss, and Johnson himself have been keen to dispense whatever largesse they can get away with. But without the reform of state institutions—notably the Treasury—to the point where they can realistically focus on long-term investment, this extra spending will likely descend (as it has already) into a confused mess of half-met promises and disappointed special interests.

Prior to this evening, Johnson and Zahawi had been talking up the prospect of tax cuts this year, Johnson blaming Sunak for denying the backbenchers their raw red meat until now. There was no evidence of a plan beyond that point. Sunak noted, in his resignation letter, that preparations for a key speech he and Johnson were due to give on the economy next week merely exposed how big the gap between the two of them was.

A cynical Chancellor could hope to get to 2023 on the back of a few judicious tax cuts to please the Tory base, some limited additional spending on popular causes—education would be an obvious choice for Zahawi, and underfunded schools have been a doorstep issue in recent by-elections—and rely on the official forecasts of declining inflation to play out by the end of the year, lapping up the (unearned) plaudits for bringing price rises under control. This wouldn’t resolve any longer term problems, but it would at least make the next six months manageable, assuming further Covid waves can be more-or-less contained.

Crucially, however, a dramatic new factor has been brought into play, in the bubbling round of strikes and industrial action for improved pay. The RMT strike has been the spark, with the growing popularity of the action and the visible, early successes of the strikers acting as a rock-solid example to others. By the end of summer, with call centre workers, teachers, brewery workers, and others all either balloting to strike or set to strike, Britain’s politics could look significantly different, with class politics back in a big, obvious way. Arriving at the moment of maximum confusion and disorganisation for the Tories, there is the possibility of a major, union-led breakthrough against the government’s insistence on real-terms pay cuts across the board. If we want to rebuild the Left, this is where it starts from.

A canny Labour Party would be able to express some of the class interests at work here, standing foursquare with the strikers and insist on inflation-busting pay rises as the route back to government. But the Establishment-focused logic of Starmer works hard against the party adopting anything like this smart, oppositional pose, reducing long-range political debates down to Parliamentary squabbles only. Whatever happens with the Tories—or indeed Labour—it is the workers’ movement far outside of Westminster that now matters the most.