How Boris Johnson can emulate Margaret Thatcher

26 January 2020

6:30 PM

26 January 2020

6:30 PM

An open letter to Boris Johnson:

People, even including your opponents, are getting used to the idea that you are not only the Prime Minister, but likely to remain so for some time to come. Yet before we settle down under the new regime, we should remember just how incredible this would have seemed, well within recent political memory.

If you had approached a publisher ten years ago with what would have turned out to be an accurate prediction of the Boris-ade, you would have been laughed to scorn.

Even a few months ago, you appeared to be a most implausible candidate for Downing Street. If you did somehow win, would you have any idea what to do? There was hardly any support for you among the battle-hardened veterans of the Tory commentariat. Counting myself in that group, I was exceedingly sceptical about your judgment, bewildered by your successes and full of alarm about the future.

These days, when my former opinions are quoted back at me, I insist that it must have been someone else of the same name writing about someone else of the same name. Less flippantly, I make a simple point. I was wrong.

When I say wrong, I mean 180 degrees wrong. I have only one excuse for such a catastrophic error. You are an extraordinarily complex and protean character whom it is easy to misread. Anyway, since the election, you have confounded the doubters by the way in which you have taken back control, as it were.

As the election-winning PM you have not put a foot wrong and are in an immensely strong position.

You are stronger than Churchill in May 1940; it was not certain that he could win the war or control the Tory party.

Stronger than Mrs Thatcher in May 1979; it was by no means certain that she could win the peace or control the Tory party.

You have been lucky. Napoleon wanted lucky marshals, and few political attributes are more important. Compare and contrast Mrs Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair. She had luck for eight years, and exploited it ruthlessly. Poor John, barely for eight minutes, so his premiership became a Calvary. Blair: all the luck a PM could want, and he never worked out how to use it. You, Boris, have luck, and with it, the chance to be a Thatcher, not a Blair. It is worth contemplating this luck in detail.

1) You are the first Tory PM since late-Eighties Thatcher to have a united party and a whole-Parliament majority.

2) The Labour party faces an arduous journey back to sanity, and has not yet begun.

3) As for the Liberals…

4) With those two parties’ help, you have defied an iron rule of modern politics. Since 1945, every government that lost an election had already forfeited its authority. The ballot box merely ratified what had already occurred. No government ever lost authority more pitiably than Theresa May’s Conservatives. Taking over must have seemed like catching the hospital pass. Yet here you are. (I suspect that in your rugger-playing days, you were not catching the pass. You were helping to scrag the poor sod who did.)

5) The EU, that great wrecking-ball, will be a much-diminished part of the political agenda.

6) Finally, you will have some money to spend.

In the UK, general elections are won one at a time. Four or five years really is a long time in politics: plenty of time for lots to go wrong.

Even so, it may prove that last December, the Tories won two elections: this one and the next one. That creates a magnificent opportunity to transform British politics and with it, your own reputation. You may have been derided. You may have seemed shambolic. But greatness is now within your grasp, if you can tackle two huge tasks. You read classics. So you will know all about the labours of Hercules, and must now tackle two of them: tribalism and morals.

Every Tory canvasser knows the feeling. He is getting on fine chatting to a respectable working-class voter, stressing law and order: Laura Norder has always been one of the party’s favourite dates. Yet at the end, the answer is always the same. ‘No, I’m sorry. We’ve always been Labour here.’ That may no longer be true. Between them, Czar Boris and Jeremy Corbyn have gravely weakened Labour tribalism. The Tories’ job is to keep a boot on its windpipe.

As for morals, however much attention the Tories pay to social welfare, masses of voters refuse to believe them. However badly Labour does in office, it has seemed impossible to displace it from the moral high ground. That may be about to change. Boris Johnson capturing the moral high ground: what a delicious irony. But it is far from impossible. If you could bring those two off, it would be worth a dozen of Hercules.

The route up to the moral high ground has a lot to do with cash. This has two aspects, the first being new money.

There is a lot of evidence that the money markets are eager to acquire UK government bonds. If the Government really could borrow getting on for a hundred billion for sound infrastructure projects at two per cent for fifty years, talk about transformation. As soon as that money starts seeping into the economy, tax receipts will grow and the underlying rate of growth should rise. It almost sounds like alchemy.

There is an obvious caveat. Ministers need to stress the soundness of the investments. Although you are good at playing Santa Claus, that will not work for 365 days a year. It must always be possible to tell the difference between the Treasury and Santa’s sleigh. Chancellor Sajid Javid is good at sounding like an old-fashioned bank manager. So was his predecessor, Philip Hammond. As a counterpoint to your exuberance, Mr Javid should practice sounding like Phil Hammond with dyspepsia.

New money should also be used for education. There is talk of a new high-tech university in Leeds. Others favour the expansion of Manchester. Do we have to choose? Why not both? What about investing in Imperial College London? What about forcing the local councils to allow Oxford and Cambridge to expand? Down at Greenwich, some of the greatest buildings in the world now house an unremarkable university. Turn them into the nucleus of one of the finest universities in the world. I suspect that it might be possible to find a billionaire tempted by that path to a monumentum aere perennius. The knowledge economy ought to be at the core of all our economic plans.

Schools are also crucial. There, the most important variable is the teacher: quality and performance. There are 470,000 teachers in the state sector. What about announcing that £4.7 billion is available for a one-off pay rise: an average of £10,000 per capita. This is less than it sounds. At least a third of the money would come back in tax. Of course, it would not be distributed equally. There could be tens of thousands for outstanding performers; a few hundred for new entrants. But terms and conditions would apply. In exchange, teachers’ standards must rise and those who fall short must fall out. The left-wing teachers’ unions would go ballistic. With a bit of luck, Labour would back them. The public would be entirely on the Government’s side.

Equally, how much would it cost to provide a computer for every kid in a state school? They are said to be good for a disciplined environment. Children who rush to log in will be less likely to rush to swing from the light-fittings.

New money should only be part of the Tory battle plan. There is one basic reason why Tories have never been able to seize the moral high ground and have also found it harder to win elections than they should have done. All your predecessors have failed to use a basic fact to shape public debate: the existing level of Government spending, currently £850 billion a year and counting.

Outside the inner sanctum of the Westminster bubble, hardly anyone is aware of that. Tell people and they are incredulous, even disbelieving. If the average voter knew just how much the government did spend, electoral life would be much easier for the Tories. So bruit the fact abroad, but not just in billions. Go back to the root of economics: the household. Inform people that the government spends around £29,000 per household each year.

Also, when some new expenditure is planned for a town, do not let the figure be swallowed up in the national picture. ‘Haltemprice gets £25 million for new cancer treatment’ – i.e. Haltemprice has won the lottery. If the Tories can start taking the credit for public spending, it will be much easier to hold on to our recent gains and to picnic on the moral high ground.

Apart from describing restraint in the growth of public spending as austerity, the left has come close to winning another rhetorical battle, on tax. They have tried to foist an egalitarian tax agenda on the Government. Again, a figure would help. If everyone knew about 1:29, or whatever the exact figure is for the contribution of the top one per cent of taxpayers, it would be much harder to persuade them that the better-off are hardly going untaxed.

We need to return to the Thatcherite verities: that lower tax rates can produce higher tax receipts and that a country in which no one can grow rich is one in which everyone is condemned to remain poor.

Obviously we want to cut tax at the lower end, but what about a symbolic gesture in the first budget: bin the 45 per cent rate?

In David Cameron’s memoirs, he writes:

‘It seemed that we would have to win the old arguments in favour of freedom, markets and enterprise all over again. We would have to convince people of the merits of equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome.’

You should now take up that challenge.

One way of doing so is to repeat endlessly that we are the party of aspiration, and reinforce that by a drive on housing. It is surprising that housing did not figure much more at the last election. It will in future.

The two ‘E’s – Europe and the economy – helped the Tories to make our inroads into Labour tribalism. But there was also a ‘P’: patriotism. An old-fashioned Labour voter told David Heathcoat-Amory that he was voting Tory this time because Corbyn ‘wasn’t right for the country’.

That could be your re-election slogan in 2024: ‘right for the country’ or may be just ‘for the country.’

Without ever sounding crudely patriotic, Tories should subtly work patriotism in to their language and their body language.

There is another theme, also related to the moral high ground: one man, one gender. More than a generation ago, Tories were foolish enough to conclude a devil’s bargain with the left: you take the culture, we will keep the economy. In that, we forgot Gramsci and the long march through the institutions (Michael Gove is the great anti-Gramscian). The marchers are now using the cultural high ground to enfilade the economy.

But they may have overreached themselves by a frontal assault on common sense. It is absurd to claim that gender is a lifestyle choice. Yes, a tiny number of people are born in the wrong body. The key word is ‘tiny’. A robust reassertion of common sense and of the need to protect children would not only be right. It would be popular.

Governments are born to trouble as the sparks fly upward. Stuff will happen. But at present, you are in a formidably strong position to make the weather, control the agenda and achieve great objectives. It would be a brave gambler who bet that you will fail.

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