“It is becoming quite a misnomer to call the… government Conservative,” said Edward Hamilton in 1889. This was said during the government of Lord Salisbury, yet it’s a phrase that could be used throughout history. Even now, many state that the Conservative Party is not conservative, as Reform UK likes to remind people, calling them “consocialists”. Tice, himself an avid Thatcherite, seemingly has succeeded to view the development of conservatism in Britain in a similar way to which many others have before him, such as Hamilton.
Arron Banks is someone who stated that “I wanted to make the Conservative Party conservative again.” even though the Conservative Party had a rich history of being pro-Europe, even taking them into it under the government of Edward Heath. But the question becomes that, if there is no specific ideological goal or plan within Johnson’s premiership, that means that it’s harder to pinpoint an ideological position on which to place his critique on. Some state that the party has become obsessed with Brexit, or instead has become too involved with populism. Many of Boris’s critics, especially those of other political parties have indeed compared him to former President of the United States, Donald Trump. His backers, though, usually talk about Boris’s ability to win as a factor of why he should remain in power, as any party is able to manifest their ideals whilst in power. The question therefore becomes, has the Conservative Party’s desire to win lost them the election?
Historically, a Conservative Party winner has been someone who has brought something new. The only Conservative Party Prime Ministers to have reached over 400 seats were Lord Salisbury and Stanley Baldwin, who both developed conservatism and were political teachers. Similarly, Thatcher was someone who changed what conservatism was and brought the party from one election win in five, to three straight wins, and two landslides. Now, while there is no such thing as a perfect Prime Minister, it shows a blueprint of how the Conservative Party is able to adapt and win. Cameron attempted this with his modernization, but the financial crash saw a revert back with his economic policies. However, he did still change policies in the party to create a modern idea of what conservatism could be, with the legalization of gay marriage.
Boris Johnson is a winner. He won decisively in the 2019 general election, and he won two London mayoral elections (the only Conservative to do so). This part is a factor in why some within the party most likely were more favorable towards him, despite the polls. He is known as someone who can shake off controversy. But with the Partygate scandal, this is something which will likely have to take it to a new level. Most polling places him as a negative figure, especially in personal ratings as compared to his opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, who is not viewed especially overwhelmingly positively himself. Yet despite the most recent issues in regard to polling, Boris’s previous electoral successes are something that are highlighted as something to draw upon as hope for the future.
When assessing this, we need to understand what does Boris actually believe in? It appears to me that Boris has no concrete ideological foundations from which he has built his government. Within modern times, there are two main branches of conservative thought: one-nation conservatism and Thatcherism. During the election campaign, Boris tried to paint himself as the former, while critics deemed him to be the latter. The reality is that the opposition will always dictate a conservative as a Thatcherite because certain communities still bear the trauma of her controversial tenure. Yet despite this, he does not appear to be a one-nation Conservative as he claimed during the 2019 election campaign. He has no grounded ideological positions, but merely places himself in whichever area is advantageous for his goals. This has been seen with the Brexit debacle, with his original position being to remain, before switching as the referendum took place. He switched his position when he thought it was better for him. Though u-turns are not necessarily bad, it shows that Boris is someone who is showing self-interest, picking a side based on what he thinks is best for his career rather than a clear ideological vision.
It’s hard to state that you believe someone should be a leader based on ideological terms if they don’t have one, so current support is more based on the ability for Boris to win. Though some people do certianly support him based on his policy, or his attitude towards certain possible government actions, the predominant factor behind the reason for the support of Boris, outside of simply being on the payroll, is his ability to win. However, the models suggest that the Conservatives are in for a bad time in the next general election if the polls were to bear out.
A Tenuous Future
The question of Boris, or any leader, remaining should not be born out of his ability to win, but instead on the basis of ideological positioning. This puts the Conservatives at a disadvantage. If he does stop winning, which appears to be the case (among other things: net negative in terms of by election results, net negative in terms of councillors won at local elections, and very low polling numbers), it certainly brings into greater question whether the legitimacy of his claim to be a winner is becoming unstuck. Without a clear ideological positioning he certainly has put himself in a position of difficulty. If you can’t win anymore, and you don’t have an ideological vision, what else is there? The Conservative Party historically wins through progressing ideologically, and adapting to the times and feelings of the people much more clearly than most other parties. This started after failing to reach a majority in 30 years, getting one, and then losing it in the next election. Salisbury adapted his, and the party’s conservatism to create unionist conservatism before Baldwin later revamped the party with the application of one-nation conservatism.
If Boris is to last, the current metrics suggest a bad result. This would end up just being another time for the Conservative Party to adapt, leaving Boris as someone with nothing bar a broken reputation. Regardless of the result, however, he would do nothing to progress the ideological propensities of the Conservative Party, which is arguably more important to a legacy than anything else. The Conservative Party may be in power, but it allows the opposition to become the party of thought, which in the long term is much more powerful as it allows for the battle of ideas to be fought on one front.
If you’re someone who is a conservative and who follows the party, the bigger danger lies within this. The only real principle is regarding the supposed culture war, which is something that largely doesn’t actually affect voters as much as the party would want it to. Talking about getting Brexit done or the vaccine rollout won’t cut it. Boris Johnson has little to say on this in terms of ideological positions on many of these key issues, just whatever he thinks can get him votes. This is a moment of danger for the Conservative Party, because when Sir Keir Starmer is beating him on polling on the economy in the polls, and his economic policies aren’t even that well known, there’s a problem. The main issue for the Conservative Party right now, is not Partygate (though it is important regarding trust) but the main issue facing the Conservative Party’s ideology, and its mentality that it chooses a winner, and ignores its history to find out how to win.