Unity is strength in politics, but also rare. All governments contain divisions. All prime ministers learn to live with disloyalty.
For most of the time that Boris Johnson has been dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, Conservative MPs have muttered discontentedly in the background. They have agitated against lockdowns, demanded more spending and resisted tax rises.
The prime minister’s commanding victory at the last election gives him a cushion, 80 seats deep, to absorb Commons rebellions, but he can still be damaged if all the malcontents kick off simultaneously. A large majority breeds indiscipline, creating a pool of MPs who languish in obscurity, unafraid of Labour and feeling neglected by their leader.
Divisions in Johnson’s ranks also reflect the diverse voter coalition he assembled in 2019, using Brexit as an electoral bridge from affluent southern Tory heartlands to former Labour strongholds in the north and Midlands. Those voters channel divergent demands through their MPs. The “red wall”, with shallow electoral foundations, needs propping up with money. The Treasury says some of the revenue must come from taxes levied on the deeper-blue parts of the coalition, which are reluctant to pay.
Those competing budget imperatives limit Rishi Sunak’s room for manoeuvre before he has started on the journey of post-pandemic reconstruction. Downing Street is eager to build things in marginal constituencies; the chancellor wants to fill the holes in the public finances. That is a likely source of future conflict (leading to noisier speculation about Sunak’s ambitions for the top job).
According to the maxim of strength through unity, Johnson’s administration should already look debilitated. Yet the Tory poll rating is resilient and the party mood is upbeat. Mostly that is vaccine bounce – and Tory speculation that Johnson’s handling of the crisis will be remembered more for the speedy jabs than the preceding complacency and avoidable deaths.
It is not a coincidence that No 10 has projected a more professional demeanour since Dominic Cummings left the building last year, although policies have not changed. The difference, say insiders, is that the Vote Leave ethos of perpetual campaign aggression, carried over from the Brexit referendum, was not conducive to practical government.
Also, Cummings had his own projects and methods, which chimed with Johnson’s worldview but were not always his priorities. The chief adviser did not see himself as a subordinate. It took the prime minister too long to realise that he was the vehicle and not the driver. That has been fixed. It is now clearer that Johnson sets the agenda, but unclear what that agenda will be: something to do with “levelling up”; something green.
Reducing the sociopath count inside No 10 has improved the government’s image but not solved the problem of Johnson’s indecision and managerial negligence. He will carry on agreeing with contradictory advice in successive meetings. He will still undermine his allies, then act wounded and surprised when they complain about the betrayal.
In Whitehall a reshuffle, cast as a full government reboot, is expected early in the summer. Johnson needs to dispose of incompetents who were given ministerial portfolios as rewards for subservience (farewell then, Gavin Williamson), and rehire veteran secretaries of state who might run departments without causing cascading crises (welcome back, Sajid Javid).
But reshuffles are fraught with risk. Demotion breeds enmity. It will be tricky to clear out a cabinet that was assembled in a spirit of peak Brexit fanaticism without sending hardliners into embittered backbench exile. The Conservative party is only ever a few duff poll results away from the conclusion that its leader is a namby-pamby liberal who must be dragged further to the right or replaced with someone who is there already.
Judging by recent experience, the Tory mood – currently on the upswing – will sway back to panic, despondency and talk of regicide before the year is out. And then, perhaps, it will revert to overconfident swagger. That is the usual rhythm.
Yet a pattern of volatility and civil strife has not stopped the party monopolising power in Westminster for more than a decade. Sometimes it makes things harder for Labour because the most effective, news-making opposition work has been insourced to the ruling party. A blue-on-blue riot drowns out the red leader. That is partly a legacy of Brexit and the Corbyn years. The opposition was consumed by its own civil war and had no position on the issue that dominated politics through two elections.
But before that, in the coalition years, Labour also struggled to make itself relevant. Too much political and media bandwidth was taken up by the dynamics of David Cameron’s partnership with the Liberal Democrats, and the backlash that provoked on the right as disgruntled Tories made common cause with Ukip.
At the height of the New Labour era, it was the Tories who were pushed to the margins by a government with full-spectrum cultural dominance. Tony Blair was more regularly troubled by rebellion on his own benches or vendetta with his chancellor than anything a Tory leader said.
The ability of a government to supply its own opposition is now being displayed to great effect by the Scottish National party, in the form of a gruesome feud between the current first minister and her predecessor. That spectacle might dent the SNP’s performance in May’s Holyrood elections, but no one expects the party to cede control.
In England, Labour still has regional and municipal bastions. Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham will almost certainly hold London and Manchester in spring ballots. But at Westminster, the Tories are settling into comfortable equilibrium as government and in-house opposition. Johnson’s lack of mooring to any belief is seen as a moral shortcoming by his critics, but most voters aren’t fussy about doctrinal rigour. Precedent suggests they are also relaxed about dissent within a ruling party, as long as it does not descend into a spectacle of dysfunction. Ideological incoherence (if noticed) is tolerated. Incompetence is not.
Division brings governments down when the ruling party is more interested in fighting itself than anything else. Sometimes MPs are so exhausted and disillusioned that they start to fancy opposition as respite; a chance to regroup. The Tories reached that point in 1997, but only after 18 years in office. They do not surrender power casually. Their disputes over policy and principle are contained by the overarching ambition to govern, and a sense of entitlement to rule. Winning is their business; feuding is for pleasure. With Labour, it is often the other way round.
There will be more cycles of Tory infighting and reconciliation. Johnson’s position will look alternately precarious and untouchable. Still, a lesson of history is that Conservative division does not necessarily end in defeat. Unity can be a strength, but there are times when disunity is no weakness.