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Beware the ‘nice Tory’ who comes after the panto villain

We cheered when Margaret Thatcher resigned, too. But let’s not kid ourselves that a grey man successor will save us.

caroline m.jpg
Caroline Molloy
7 July 2022, 5.59pm
Boris Johnson is leaving Downing Street - but what next?

Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo and Thomas Krych/Alamy Stock Photo / Design by James Battershill

There were no tears outside Downing Street today, from Johnson or anyone else. A few of the Tory faithful will no doubt weep over his departure. But for the rest of us, the most normal emotion, after the most abnormal couple of days in politics I can remember, is relief. And for some, audible behind the barricades, understandable glee.

In a country that has etiquette and a 96-year-old lady with a crown rather than a constitution, it’s hard to predict exactly how the next few weeks will play out. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough of thinking about Johnson’s psychodrama and machinations. It’s over – even if it takes a few weeks to clear him out.

But once the door has finally slammed behind Johnson, what then?

We might, perhaps, look to the last time the Conservative Party jettisoned a combative, presidential and increasingly unpopular leader, even as a full-scale domestic recession and international military conflict loomed.

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I remember the day in November 1990 that Thatcher resigned. “She’s gone!” someone shouted, bursting through the door of my English A-level class. The class erupted in jubilation, while our tweedy teacher stared into the corner tearfully, muttering about the winter of discontent.

Our glee didn’t last past the next lesson bell. “But now they’ll get someone else, and they’ll win the next election,” one of the bright sparks realised, stricken.

The Conservative Party, exhausted by Thatcher’s fireworks, opted for the greyest, least charismatic replacement possible. And it’s a choice many think they’re now likely to repeat, given that last time that trick got them seven more years of Tory government, under John Major.

Still – without Johnson, things can only get better, eh? Or maybe not.

Beware grey men

Despite his grey persona and characterisation as a ‘one nation conservative’, Major gave his party what it wanted: Thatcherism without Thatcher.

His chancellor, Norman Lamont, notoriously told Parliament in 1991 that recession and unemployment were a “price well worth paying” to tackle inflation. The manufacturing jobs that had survived Thatcher duly began to disappear, replaced later in the 1990s with jobs that were worse paid and less unionised, meaning real wage growth was far lower during that decade than it had been in the 1980s.

The current crop of Tories is determined to finish the job of ‘liberalising’ – that is, weakening – people’s employment rights, which is why we’re facing a ‘summer of discontent’ as railway workers and others try to see off attempts to hammer down their pay and conditions, post-pandemic

In 1992, Major’s social security secretary Peter Lilley slashed eligibility for benefits, and launched the ‘benefit scrounger’ narrative – wowing the Tory party conference by setting catchy phrases about “bogus claims”, “spongers”, and “young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing queue” to a Gilbert & Sullivan tune.

His other enduring welfare legacy was the ‘fit for work’ tests for disability benefits, taking that assessment away from GPs. The slashing of entitlement to benefits has continued ever since – and the Right has recently started lobbying hard for even tougher rules.

Thatcher may have seen many of us as enemies, but Major saw all of us as nothing but consumers – and that was equally disastrous

Major delivered other Thatcherite reforms that even Thatcher hadn’t managed. He privatised British Rail (disastrously). He throttled public investment in schools, hospitals and infrastructure, inventing instead the (disastrously expensive) private finance initiative (PFI) with the help of everyone’s favourite cuddly Tory, Ken Clarke.

The social care reforms Major implemented kicked off the massive privatisation of that sector, and he also implemented the first ‘market’ in the NHS, introducing bloated bureaucracy to oversee ‘competition’ between ‘providers’. Education was similarly marketised, with both hospitals and schools competing against each other in ‘league tables’.

Thatcher may have seen many of us as enemies, but Major saw all of us as nothing but consumers – and that was equally disastrous, and probably more enduring.

The failure of the centre ground

Thatcher allegedly claimed that her greatest achievement was ‘New Labour’ – but it was during the Major years, not the Thatcher ones, that Labour underwent that rebranding, and ditched its constitutional commitment to socialism, to distributing the proceeds of any growth, in a bid for the so-called ‘centre ground’.

It is impossible to ignore any longer how that ‘centre ground’ has failed us. It tolerated Boris Johnson’s unsuitability for high office for far too long, excusing itself with hysteria that a Left alternative would somehow wreak more havoc rather than less.

And it has tolerated far too much. An astonishing rise in inequality. The collapsing of standards and accountability in our outsourced and deregulated services. The fact that capitalism itself now only survives with constant government support. A surge in the number of billionaires in the UK – even as large numbers of people are so poor that they face starving to death this winter.

That last point isn’t my opinion – it’s what the former head of the CBI told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday.

Ladybird Book of Thatcherism

It might seem that, right now, we can hope for nothing better than a reasonably swift Johnsonian exit, followed by the arrival of as palatable a Tory as possible, while Labour continues to prepare for an election battle on the ‘centre ground’.

But that would be a disastrous misreading of where that strategy has got us in recent decades. Indeed, one of the reasons Jeremy Hunt – who’s gunning for the job of PM and might be seen as Major’s natural (grey, vaguely socially liberal) equivalent – has been able to rehabilitate himself so successfully after his disastrous stewardship of the NHS is because Labour’s opposition to his approach to the health service was often surprisingly muted.

Because, in reality, there has been a policy continuum between the Thatcher, Major, Blair and Cameron years. In fact it’s Johnson who’s been the odd one out – far too much of a wild card to reliably deliver the deregulatory, business-friendly policies he’d promised the donors and press barons – and it’s that which finally did for him. Not his character, which has been well known for years.

No. It’s time to make the case for honesty – and if Labour won’t do it, I expect other parties, social movements and the newly resurgent unions will. Not the bogus honesty of the ‘we’re all in it together’ or ‘it’s going to be tough’ kind. But an honesty that says – look, there’s no ‘levelling up’ that comes from the kind of hard-right, deregulatory, Ladybird Book of Thatcherism policies that pretty much the whole Tory party is wedded to.

Any growth that comes from such a strategy will be hoarded (as always) by the richest – unless we have an interventionist, redistributionist welfare state. We need to defend and rebuild the basic standards of public life – and that’s not just about whether politicians lie to each other or to us, but about whether, and how, ordinary people are able to get their daily needs met.

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