The global impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are clearly far more significant than their impact upon the Conservative Party. Given, however, that it is the psychodrama of the latter that is currently playing out upon our news screens, it’s interesting to explore how the pressures caused by the pandemic have led us to where we are today.
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Political parties and legitimacy
Every major political part is a broad coalition – particularly in a first-past-the-post system such as the UK. All kinds of names get thrown about for the different tribes and factions within the Tory party – One Nation; Thatcherites; Social Conservatives; European Research Group and more – and similar tribes could be identified within the Labour party. What is more, such divisions are porous and non-exhaustive. China hawks might be drawn from the economic left and right of the party; different MPs will have their own personal views on all kinds of social matters, from euthanasia to immigration, and MPs will also feel different pressures based on their constituency. And yet, on most votes, on most issues, nearly all MPs will vote with their party. Why?
The question is one of legitimacy, of both the party’s leader and that leader’s programme. Just as a Mediaeval king gained legitimacy by acting in a way which was perceived to be the way a ‘good king’ would act (winning battles, having a grand court, respecting the titles of his nobles, displaying courage, justice and piety), so a party leader gains legitimacy through means consistent with establishing democratic legitimacy.
So, what are those means? Winning a selection contest to become leader confers some legitimacy – though as we saw by the rapid rejection of Liz Truss (or, to a lesser extent, the move by MPs against Jeremy Corbyn in 2016, following the Brexit referendum) this is not sufficient to hold a party if the leader does something that its MPs are deeply unhappy with. Winning a general election provides more legitimacy – and the bigger the majority the better (as can almost winning one, if that was unexpected: Corbyn’s legitimacy improved considerably following the 2017 election). This is not just that MPs like a winner (though that is a factor); it is also the fact that parliamentarians do genuinely believe in democracy and see that a mandate from the people confers legitimacy. Once an election is won, the manifesto itself provides legitimacy. Not only has it been endorsed by the public, the MPs themselves put aside their differences to actively campaign on the measures therein(1). An MP will feel far more justified in rebelling against a new item, not contained within the manifesto, than against a manifesto pledge(2). And finally, of course, legitimacy is kept and maintained by means that would not be entirely unfamiliar to a Mediaeval king: economic prosperity, succesfully delivering on manifesto items, triumphs on the international stage and even – though it may not seem like it – personal qualities such as integrity, diligence and charisma. Yes, it may take a while, but Johnson’s premiership was after all fatally undermined by character, not by a failure of policy or delivery.
The other main component of governability relates to the mechanics of control. Prime Ministers exert power within their party through patronage, through the whipping system and through other procedural means. Our Mediaeval monarch would once again feel quite at home. These are the means whereby power is exercised, while legitimacy can be sought of as why MPs do what the Prime Minister wishes without the need for the exertion of power. A strong chief whip, and great personal skill can strengthen a PM’s ability to exert power in this way, while powerful factions within a party, a reputation for u-turns or many MPs who personally disagree with the Prime Minister’s agenda weaken it.
Ultimately, a Prime Minister must have legitimacy and cannot rule their party through force alone. There are only so many ministerial posts to be awarded (approximately 100, compared to 365 Conservative MPs), only so many times hope of future preferment dangled, only so much that can be done for a constituency and only so many dirty secrets that the whips can leverage. This is not to say that a good Chief Whip and a well organised party don’t matter: they clearly do, tremendously so. But without legitimacy, even the best party management operation will fail – and with legitimacy, it will be significantly easier.
In practice, all of these matters combine. A Prime Minister from a smaller faction of the party – such as Jeremy Corbyn or Liz Truss – will find things more challenging than one from the centre. May’s legitimacy was permanently crippled following the 2017 general election. A vote to rebel on a single issue, unconnected to the government’s primary programme, such as Cameron’s defeat on intervention in Syria, while a setback, does far less to damage legitimacy than defeat upon a core iterm of a government’s programme, or one which has wider implications. Where MPs feel they have a just cause for rebelling – because they feel the government has let them down, has gone against its manifesto, because of the impact on their constituency or as a matter of strongly held conscience – they are more likely to. Finally and most crucially, illegitimacy begets illegitimacy, as defeats and u-turns embolden other rebels, ultimately leading to either a leadership election, a general election or a party becoming ungovernable.
Brexit and its Legacy
Prior to 2019, the Conservative Party had, for a long-time, been divided over Europe. What is sometimes forgotten is that, prior to 2019, it had been a majority-Remain party. While it is true that nearly all Leave-supporting MPs were Conservatives, in 2016 more Conservatives – including Cameron, the leader of the party – had supported Remain. This continued to be the case following the general election in 2017.
Although the European Research Group (ERG) has existed since 1993, in the run-up to the 2016 referendum, Leave supporters within the parliamentary party became increasingly organised, coordinating closely both to secure a referendum and to inflict several critical defeats upon David Cameron as to how it would be run, including preventing the Government from changing purdah rules(3). Following May’s ascent to the premiership – and particularly following the 2017 general election – this continued. As confidence in May’s ability to secure a deal – or, indeed, a Brexit of any form – dwindled, and worries increased as to whether Parliament as a whole would honour Brexit, the ERG increasingly exerted influence over the shape of the negotiations. Despite having none of the official powers of patronage or other means of influence of a Prime Minister or party leader, the ERG was reported to operate its own whipping operation and, more broadly, behave as a (highly effective) party within a party. It did not always retain its coherence: the 34 ‘Spartans’ who voted against Theresa May’s final attempt to agree a Brexit deal before 29th March represented only a portion of the ERG. But it often did.
Equally, those on the Remain side who sought to block the UK’s exit from the EU, or to force a second referendum, were also highly active. Initially unused to being in rebellion, it took longer for them to become organised, but by 2019 they were working in an organised manner, across party boundaries, to inflict defeats upon the Government and take control of the Parliamentary agenda. With Keir Starmer, Yvette Cooper, the Liberal Democrats, the Independent Group for Change (in its various incarnations) they produced such measures as the Cooper-Letwin Bill, the Benn Bill and various other Parliamentary interventions.
Needless to say, having highly organised internal factions within a party, which routinely oppose the leadership on the primary matter of the day, does nothing for party unity or legitimacy. Individual caucuses on specific matters are nothing new – and they may have significant influence on certain matters. But a group of MPs with a particular interest in China may impact on a handful of votes (typically on an amendment) a year; the divisions over Brexit were vastly more far-reaching.
The Ascent of Boris Johnson and the Altalena Affair
After the Conservatives sank to 9% in the 2019 European Elections, Theresa May resigned and Boris Johnson was elected Prime Minister, beating his principal rival Jeremy Hunt decisively amongst both MPs and the membership. He had campaigned on a platform of delivering Brexit, with or without a deal.
Amongst the many turbulent happenings of the next six months, the most significant in terms of party unity was the expulsion of 21 MPs who had supported a cross-party Bill that would have sought an extension to the Brexit withdrawal date. Though shocking to many, it was accepted by the Party as a whole due to Johnson’s legitimacy: this was a direct rebellion against the core platform on which he had run and secured a large majority within the party. After three years of division, there was also an acceptance by many that the stalemate had to end.
With hindsight, it can be seen that this moment was a decisive one in allowing the Conservative Party to unify and move on from the Brexit divisions. Just as the Altalena Affair(4) established the Government of Israel’s monopoly upon the legitimate use of force within Israel, so the expulsion established that the Johnson Government would not tolerate dissension on his core mandate of leaving the EU. Although some of the MPs were subsequently allowed to rejoin the party(5), the principle had been established. In the 2019 General Election, all Conservative MPs were selected on a clear understanding that they would support the Party line on Brexit. In that General Election, Johnson won an 80 seat majority, decisively reinforcing his legitimacy and Brexit was subsequently delivered without significant Parliamentary obstacles.
Of course, while they may have been united over Brexit, the Conservative MPs elected in 2019 still had a wide range of views on other matters. In particular, economically, there was a broad coalition from the right of the party to the centre – and, on average, they were significantly to the right of their new voters. On other matters, the sheer number of MPs entering Parliament at this time, many from a wider diversity of backgrounds and constituencies, naturally gave rise to a similar diversity of opinions.
Yet this, in normal times, would not have been a major problem. The 2019 manifesto was, other than on Brexit, a broad, centrist, ‘document, committed to levelling up and significant increases in public services: putting into practice the hypothesis, advanced by various political scientists such as Matthew Goodhart, that ‘it is easier for right-wing parties to tack left on economics than it is for left-wing parties to tack right on culture‘. Though not all MPs were completely on board with this, the legitimacy gained by Johnson, winning the largest Conservative majority since Thatcher, not to mention his reputation as a repeated vote-winner, should have been more than enough to carry the party through.
So, what went wrong?
The COVID-19 Pandemic
In December, Boris Johnson won a historic majority, the largest for the Conservative party in 30 years. In January, he reshuffled his Cabinet, ready to govern. By February, COVID-19 was a growing matter of concern and by the end of March 2020, the UK was in lockdown, with schools, entertainment, non-essential shops and most other things closed. The COVID-19 pandemic was to dominate the next two years of all our lives.
So why did this matter for the governability of the Conservative party? There are at least six reasons. In no particular order:
- A new, deep split, on COVID. While the UK (thankfully) never became as polarised as the US, particularly on matters such as vaccines, there was a significant minority of the Conservative parliamentary party (and a much smaller proportion of voters) who were more sceptical on COVID-measures, in particular on masks, on the closing of schools and on how quickly and how comprehensively to reopen. While the Covid Research Group never saw the policy success of the ERG, it recreated the phenomenon of an organised block of MPs, actively self-organised, who were happy to regularly rebel against the government. This was not a phenomenon that one would have expected to occur following the 2019 general election.
- Disillusionment with the policy programme. The pandemic frequently (and understandably) took precedence over manifesto priorities. More seriously, it resulted in an enormous outlay of public money (much of it necessary, some of it not), which added to the national debt and, ultimately, would have to be paid for. This in turn necessitated the raising of taxes. For MPs already slightly disgruntled with the centrist tone of the 2019 manifesto, this was a problem. The fact that the costs of the pandemic must be paid for significantly increases the difficulty of the options available to Government and means – as Truss has now demonstrated – there is no easy way to lower taxes without making commensurate, significant, cuts in public spending.
- An atypical policy environment. During the pandemic it was normal for £1bn+ figures to be announced, outside of Spending Reviews or fiscal events, in response to sudden events, public campaigns or media crises. This, to put it mildly, is not usual outside times of national crisis. Particularly for some newer MPs, this helps to give an unrealistic impression of both whether new funding is likely to be available, as well as the likely quantum. Unlike, say, the Cameron government of 2010, which campaigned and governed on fiscal discipline, many current MPs have not had to make the same volume of difficult decisions on spending cuts.
- An atypical environment for MPs. For the 107 new Conservative MPs (almost 1/3 of the Parliamentary party), their first year was extremely atypical. Unable to come into Parliament, they had barely met any of their fellow MPs before lockdown hit and did not have the chance to establish the usual bonds of loyalty. Even for existing MPs, communication via Zoom and WhatsApp meant the social dynamics were completely atypical. Almost every MP I’ve spoken to has said this made the whipping operation much more difficult, made rebellions more likely to brew (and harder to spot) and, all in all, made the party less governable. And, of course, once an MP has rebelled once, they are more likely to rebel again.
- A more challenging overall policy environment. Many of the decisions made during COVID-19 were genuinely difficult. Sometimes the right decision is only available in hindsight – and sometimes not even then. Similarly, while the recent mini-budget and fallout has added to the challenges for the UK, there are genuinely global economic challenges, with rising interest rates, high inflation, a disrupted labour market, the after-effects of stimulus and a global energy crisis. Plus all the added borrowing during the pandemic. It may be a truism to say that it’s easier to keep MPs on side when you’re choosing between good decisions – where to spend more money, or which taxes to cut – than when choosing between bad decisions – where to cut, or which tax to increase – but it is a truism because it’s true.
- The fall of Johnson. Of all the scandals that contributed to Johnson’s fall, Partygate is preeminent. It dominated the papers for – literally – months on end. Most importantly, it cut through where many others didn’t: unlike Curtaingate, or Patersongate, which for many people seemed far removed from their own lives, everyone had (or, at least, knew someone who had) missed an important life event – a birth, a funeral, a wedding – due to lockdown. It had an emotional resonance that other scandals lacked. Furthermore, it outraged across political boundaries: those who supported lockdown were appalled he had not taken it seriously; those who had opposed it were angered that he had imposed rules on the country that he himself had not thought important enough to abide by. His fall, due to an issue of character rather than policy, has (a) precipitated the search for a new Prime Minister; and (b) left him with a loyal following amongst a significant minority of MPs, as can be seen by the current leadership election(6).
All of these factors have contributed considerably to how governable – or not – the Conservative Party is. The pandemic is not the only factor. The party suffers all the challenges that beset any party that has been a long time in Government: personal loyalties that, for some MPs, have become insurmountable; loyalty to former leaders; disillusionment with past decisions; many former ministers on the back benches. But in the light of the Johnson reinvention of the party, and the subsequent triumph in the 2019 general election, these would have been subsumed within a new unity. The shock of the pandemic effect has, however, reawakened them.
The first post-Brexit Conservative leader
Liz Truss was the first post-Brexit Conservative leader. The next Prime Minister will be the second.
By this I mean that it was the first leadership election since the referendum where the Leave/Remain status of a candidate was not a significant factor in the campaign. Instead, it was fought – as was once traditional – on primarily economic grounds. Truss, the standard-bearer of the Right, voted Remain (and defeated Leave-voting contenders on the right, such as Badenoch and Braverman, to get there). Sunak, the MP’s choice but not the members’, voted Leave, as did Mordaunt, seen as the most left-wing of the top-three. Leave/Remain was simply not a factor.
Furthermore, Truss’s principal agenda was not one based on Brexit, but an economic agenda that she had first set out in Britannia Unchained, the book she had co-authored with Kwarteng (and others) in 2012. The fall-out and subsequent backlash was also not connected to Brexit(7) but rather to the bond markets and other economic matters.
So, is the Conservative Party governable or ungovernable?
I do not choose to make predictions about a leadership election which will be over almost as soon as I finish writing, nor to make definitive pronouncements about the future from then on. It is certainly possible to foresee scenarios in which the party is indeed ungovernable, leading to a rapid general election (and an almost certain victory by Keir Starmer); it is also possible, indeed, rather more likely, to foresee a future in which the new leader brings the party together sufficiently enough to govern for two years, before a general election is held. This would also likely result in a victory by Keir Starmer, but perhaps by a rather lesser margin.
What is certain, however, is that the new leader faces a challenging task. If it is ungovernable, then it is due far more to the travails of the pandemic, the fall-out of the Truss premiership and the background challenges of being more than a decade in government, rather than to Brexit – other than in the banal sense that, if the Referendum had gone the other way, all our subsequent history would be different. But the fissures and schisms outlined above still exist, and will need to be overcome.
In almost every way, despite superficial similarities, the situation is more challenging than when Johnson became Prime Minister in 2019. Johnson’s followers are more numerous and vocal than May’s (it is impossible, for example, to imagine dozens of Conservative MPs calling for May to become Prime Minister again in September, had Johnson resigned over prorogation). The turmoil of the rapid changes in leadership will add confusion. The opposition is better organised and better led.
Most fundamentally though, there is no single-issue matter of division, no one great challenge to overcome. There is no ‘Altalena Affair’, equivalent to the expulsion of the Remain 21, that can be done to unify the party. Instead there will be a constant succession of difficult choices: on departmental spending, on public sector pay, on benefits, on tax, around each of which a sufficient majority will need to be marshalled. Even at the best of times, an economic crisis is a difficult time to govern.
One thing only is certain: things will not be easy for the next Prime Minister.
(1) In addition, under the Salisbury Convention, the House of Lords will traditionally not block a measure contained within the governing party’s manifesto.
(2) One element of the vote on fracking the evening before Liz Truss resigned is that many Conservative MPs felt they were being asked to vote against their own manifesto, which had pledged a moratorium on fracking.
(3) This would have allowed the government to actively campaign for Remain during the formal referendum period.
(4) The Altalena Affair was a confrontation that took place shortly after the establishment of Israel, in which the Israeli Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, authorised the Israel Defence Forces to use force against a cargo ship operated by the Irgun (an Israeli paramilitary group) who were bringing arms into the country. It was a key moment in establishing that the Israeli Government would have a monopoly upon the use of force within Israel – a critical component of a modern state – and that paramilitary forces would not be allowed to operate outside the authority of the Government.
(5) Though unlike Menachem Begin, none have since become leader of the party, nor look likely to.
(6) There is, of course, a view that the Johnson premiership would not have lasted regardless, undermined by other scandals, or the rivalry between his Chief of Staff and his wife. I think this wrong: Johnson had proved a successful Mayor of London, twice, had successfully campaigned for and won the 2019 general election and had a strong and effective team about it; many of the lesser scandals were, rightly or wrongly, ‘priced in’. Regardless, however, it is unarguable that the pandemic and Partygate hastened his demise.
(7) Or to associated matters, such as the Northern Ireland Protocol.