As published by The Times Red Box:
In January, I called on the prime minister to resign. But when my parliamentary colleagues asked me whether I had submitted a letter calling for a confidence vote, I said no. The reason was demonstrated this week when we had a vote with possibly the worst outcome, neither decisive nor supportive. This vote should have not been held until after both the upcoming by-elections and the privileges committee report. That would have been the point at which the parliamentary party had the full information to make that judgment.
Now we have a year of grace before we can revisit that decision. I do not support changing the interval between confidence votes, as was threatened with Theresa May at an equivalent point in the process with her. Doing so threatens to destabilise every future Conservative leader, which would be a disastrous outcome to this episode.
But neither do I think that we should plough on as we are. In 1995 we had a leadership contest in which John Major won 66 per cent of the vote, seven percentage points more than Johnson, but we then went on to one of the most devastating defeats in modern times at the next general election. So how do we avoid this outcome?
Many of those who voted against Johnson did so partly because of concerns with his policy approach as well as worries about the lockdown parties scandal and associated issues. This was most obvious in Jesse Norman’s excoriating letter to the prime minister yesterday, but he was not the only one.
Johnson’s champions like to say that “he gets the big calls right”. Perhaps. The initial approach to Covid — cutting out parliament and avoiding scrutiny with the emergency legislation, sending Covid patients into care homes, not acting to prevent super-spreader transmission from Spain and Italy — were all pretty big calls, and they were all wrong. So was the track and trace strategy.
Maybe that is an unfair exercise of hindsight. But that can’t be said for the fact that the economic policy that we are pursuing looks barely Conservative at all. We are overtaxing our people to the tune of tens of billions of pounds at a time when individual budgets are under pressure, and destined to get more so.
Instead of focusing on the traditional Conservative aim of broad, universal tax cuts, the government has increased national insurance contributions, imposed an arbitrary tax on oil and gas companies, and flip-flopped between different targeted support measures.
Furthermore, we are facing a huge hike in inflation this year, which will make many people poorer — people who cannot afford it. That is at least partly down to the quantitative easing policy that the Bank of England has pursued this last couple of years. We need to put all that right, and it should be Johnson’s immediate priority.
But even if we accept the “big call” argument, running a country is about more than just a few selective decisions. Margaret Thatcher understood that, which is why she worked so ferociously hard. She understood that people’s lives can be made miserable by the failure of a lot of the “small calls” — being able to get a passport before going on holiday, being able to get a driving license, being able to get a doctor’s appointment.
In other words, details matter. Grand aims are all well and good but they mean nothing when the detail isn’t there. And sadly, Johnson has been light on detail from day one.
What I hope Johnson will now avoid is a set of populist policies that are drafted in the hope of shoring up our immediate popularity. This may work in the very short term, but if the policy is not thought through carefully enough, it will end up with dreadful headlines as it goes wrong. Jesse Norman picked out a prime candidate for this when he attacked our policy to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda. And he was right to note that the plan to build one nuclear power station per year — which is fundamentally important to achieving his net zero goals — is pie-in-the-sky stuff.
Resetting, then, means more than just headlines. It means real change in the meat of government. To achieve that, Johnson will need to think hard about who advises him. At City Hall, he surrounded himself with top-class advisers with expertise on policy. Yet in No 10, he has centralised power and avoided proper debate. That has to change.
Johnson achieved a remarkable election victory in 2019. But he has let things slide since then. His victory in yesterday’s vote provides his last chance to get his act together.
Anything else will spell disaster not just for Johnson but for the Conservative Party as a whole.