A British prime minister held in No. 10 against his will. The very notion seems absurd, but this is essentially what is happening right now. Boris Johnson wants a general election, a chance to see whether the public agree with him or parliament on the sanctity of the October 31 deadline for leaving the European Union. The House of Commons won’t give him one. Instead it keeps him in office while the opposition condemn him as unfit to be there.
In more normal times, the Supreme Court finding unanimously that the prime minister acted unlawfully in the advice he gave the Queen would lead to either a prime ministerial resignation or a motion of no confidence. But Johnson has no intention of resigning and despite parliament’s return, a motion of no confidence has not been tabled.
There are three reasons why Members of Parliament who oppose the government on the biggest issue of the day are refusing to support a general election. None of them is laudable. The first is a cynical attempt to do political damage to him. They want him there so that on October 19 it is he who has to request a delay to that October 31 leaving date. Why get rid of a PM when you can pass laws to force him to do what you want? Then there is the fact they can’t agree on who should replace him. The Liberal Democrats won’t back Jeremy Corbyn, and he won’t back anyone else. The final reason is cowardice. They fear the Tories would come back from a election with a mandate and a majority for their Brexit policy.
Johnson’s response to his Supreme Court defeat and his coming parliamentary humiliation is to redouble his calls for a general election. He’ll argue that the public should be allowed to decide whether he’s fit for office or not. The Tory conference in Manchester will be a campaign rally.
The Tory party that will meet in Manchester is a very different one. The pace of change has been remarkable. David Cameron only ceased being Tory leader three and a half years ago, yet at the launch of his autobiography last week, there were only two serving ministers present. Cameron’s former parliamentary private secretary is now a Liberal Democrat MP.
If the Tories prevail at the next election, this sense of a new Conservative party will only grow. The route to a majority depends on winning over traditionally Labour, Leave-voting seats. A Tory party that has succeeded by winning these places will look and feel very different to the one of the past: more northern, more working-class, more concerned with ordinary people. And its political economy will be different too. It won’t be laissez-faire or libertarian, but a believer in the idea that state intervention through big infrastructure projects can spread growth.
It’ll take a very different attitude to public spending to Tory governments of the past too — less fiscally conservative and keener to splash the cash. At political cabinet recently, Johnson declared that the Tories must be ‘the people’s party’ not just in relation to Brexit but to voters’ other priorities too: more police on the street, better hospital facilities and more resources for schools. This month’s spending review promised the biggest increase in public spending in 15 years. What’s more, the government was clear that this was not a one-off, but the beginning of a ‘decade of renewal’. As one of those close to the PM puts it, they know they are asking a lot in trying to get traditional Labour backers to change their vote and so they want to make it as easy as possible for them. One of the lessons that the Tories have learnt from 2017 is that if you are going after seats that have been Labour for decades, you can’t do that with a typical Tory economic message.
In Downing Street, they argue that the Tories aren’t moving to the right under Boris Johnson but that their policies are bang in the middle of where public opinion is. There is some truth to this. The prime minister’s idiosyncratic language disguises the fact that this government is as driven by focus groups and public opinion as the Blair one was. The speech Johnson made on the steps of Downing Street reflected back the concerns that are expressed most frequently.
This approach doesn’t lead to a party that is in the center in traditional Westminster terms. SW1 see this government as being very right-wing on crime, citing the appointment of Priti Patel as home secretary as evidence of this. But its policies on law and order — 20,000 more police, an expansion of stop and search, an end to early release — are in the mainstream of public opinion.
It is Brexit that people are really talking about when they attack the PM as extreme, or accuse him — as the former chancellor Philip Hammond has done — of turning the Tories into an ‘extreme right-wing sect’. But Johnson will not resile from his do-or-die stance. He will pitch himself as the man determined to deliver Brexit regardless of the obstacles put in his way.
There are some signs that this strategy may pay off. Conference season has confirmed that the opposition will be split. The Liberal Democrats will be an unambiguously Remain party who want to revoke Article 50. Labour will merely be a second referendum party, not a Remain party. That decision will boost the Liberal Democrats at Labour’s expense, and create the potential for the Tories to pick up a host of Labour marginals. If they can do that, then the Tories will be on course for a majority.
A general election that results in a majority for one side or the other is the best way out of this mess. Our political system cannot function right now because it is based on the idea that the executive can command a majority in parliament, which it currently can’t. Until there is a government that can, the constitutional crises will continue to mount up.