These are heady days for committed opponents of Boris Johnson, but I have bad news for them. If the prime minister is toppled by the so-called “partygate scandal”, the next leader is still going to be a Conservative — and one whose policies resemble those of the embattled incumbent.
There is no return to the Cameron era. The Tories are not about to undergo a significant course correction that endears them once more to wealthy metropolitans. There is no major group or viable contender ready to fly the flag for social liberalism; no cadre of old-style globalists. No likely successor is about to offer a dramatic shift on Brexit. They might seek to damp down the tension with the EU, but none are going to rediscover the merits of the single market. Johnson’s Brexit will remain this government’s north star. It will continue to determine the key policies
For the last two elections the Tories have charted a clear course, built around an electoral realignment. The shift started with Theresa May, whose 2017 election failure obscured the fact that her 42 per cent was the highest vote share of any leader since 1997. Johnson won only 330,000 more votes in 2019, though crucially they were more effectively distributed. While Johnson’s campaigning talents are formidable, as decisive was the collapse of the Labour vote under Jeremy Corbyn.
Johnson’s lockdown breaches and failings may leave him terminally discredited but few in his party are questioning the manifesto on which he won. Whether he falls or not, it is hard to see any likely alternative path that maintains that electoral coalition.
One seasoned Tory operator observes: “We have to lean into the logic of the electoral realignment. We’ve already lost the Putney Tories. Our voters are predominantly from one of four groups. They are rural, white working class, rich and old.” This instinct demands doubling down on existing policies and not fretting about the loss of the odd southern suburb.
Not all will share this analysis. The more liberal Tories — and, unsurprisingly, those in dormitory towns in the south — point to an MRP poll from the end of last year showing that a number of north-eastern seats won in 2019 may be very hard to hold (a view clearly reached by the Bury South MP who defected to Labour on Wednesday) so the party needs to focus more on southern and Midlands support.
Yet the best these MPs can hope for is a less chaotic government. A clue to what comes next can be seen in the vacuous policy ideas rushed out as part of Downing Street’s efforts to shore up support and nicknamed — with the usual seriousness — “Operation Red Meat”. This included an attack on the BBC and yet another fast-dissolving plan to deal with cross-Channel asylum seekers. The vapidity of the ideas matters less than the fact that, when cornered, Johnson sees most need to pacify the Tory right. He has also rushed to end the Covid restrictions which alienated much of his party.
What shift there is will most likely be rightward. That certainly seems the long-term trend. One cabinet minister notes: “In every leadership contest the party members have backed the more rightwing candidate”. This is not entirely correct but where the ideological divide is pronounced, the membership does veer towards the more hardline contender.
But the spectrum of Tory opinion is now quite narrow. The path is similar whether or not Johnson survives. Debates about Brexit are more about further divergence than re-engagement. There are leadership contenders who would wish to smooth relations with the EU but no one hoping to win can afford to be seen as going soft, especially those, like foreign secretary Liz Truss, who originally backed Remain.
Nor is there any appetite among members for a less hardline stance on law and order or immigration — nor much of a retreat from cultural conflicts. If anything, the opposite is true. There will probably be a renewed push on Whitehall reform.
It is also possible that leadership hopefuls will need to nod to the growing caucus demanding a dilution of the green taxes and energy levies that support the net zero pledges. While no serious contender is close to climate change denial, the current energy price spike will be used by those MPs who argue for a slower transition away from fossil fuels, with commitments pushed to the back end of the 2050 target.
Beyond the values that make them Conservatives in the first place, the majority of MPs are less ideological than many assume. Most simply want to restore their fortunes. Among the more hardline factions, the hottest fight is likely to be over the limits of interventionism in a party that has moved towards a belief in the active state. The low-tax side will make inroads but they know that another round of austerity will break their electoral coalition so any shift is unlikely to be seismic.
There is always some recalibration because the personality of a leader does matter. But in policy terms these will be only tweaks on the tiller. The most likely shift is in character.
None of this is to argue that Johnson should be reprieved. Even if the only difference which follows a change of leader is a restoration of professionalism, trust and integrity, that will still be a substantial advance.
But for all the joy Johnson’s downfall would bring his enemies, it may be a mistake to expect a significant shift in direction. The next pope will still be Catholic and the next Tory leader will still be a committed Conservative Brexiter.