What the Tories must do to ward off their worst nightmare: The good news, says ANDREW NEIL, is that Keir Starmer is no Tony Blair. And if Boris Johnson’s successor has real focus and ambition – and sorts out the chaos at No10 – there’s all to fight for
There is one thing the Tories must do in the weeks ahead: that is to stop obsessing about what Boris Johnson might do as a caretaker prime minister and worry more about what his successor needs to do to win the next general election.
Wiser heads are already reconciled to a short Johnson interregnum. There is no clear mechanism for ousting him before a new leader is chosen. To force the issue would only make an already messy departure even more unseemly.
Johnson’s supporters are bitter enough without subjecting him to further humiliation. Just as David Cameron and Theresa May were allowed to continue as caretakers, they want their man to be treated with the same courtesy and consideration — and they need to be allowed to come to terms with a post-Johnson world, not be alienated even more.
Boris Johnson meets Ukrainian families at Uxbridge Library during a constituency visit today
Allowing Johnson to stay in situ for a few weeks more also has a plus: it is concentrating the minds of Tory party managers to move quickly to find a successor.
Graham Brady, the sensible chief shop steward of Tory backbench MPs, wants the parliamentary party to whittle down all the candidates to the final two before the summer recess on July 21.
There will then be hustings among Tory party members across the nation for the two remaining contenders to lay out their stalls.
But Brady wants a vote in time for a new leader — and hence a new prime minister — to be declared by September 5, the first Monday of the month when Parliament reassembles.
So Boris has a further eight weeks to enjoy the trappings of office, six of them when Parliament won’t be sitting, which will inhibit his ability to do much, as will the Cabinet, the civil service, the media and public opinion during the recess.
Just as David Cameron and Theresa May were allowed to continue as caretakers, they want their man to be treated with the same courtesy and consideration
He will no doubt take a well-deserved holiday during this time and hold court for the last time at Chequers, his official country residence, as various agents, publishers, broadcasters and the odd huckster beat a path to his door offering shedloads of dosh for his post-premier services. He’ll relish that.
The Tories have more important matters to hand: how to breathe life, direction and purpose into an ailing government that is on the brink of being past its sell-by date.
The first thing they should realise is that this need not be 1995 when, two years out from an election, John Major’s government was floundering and Tony Blair was unstoppable. Changing leaders then would have made no difference to the outcome of the 1997 General Election, which Labour won by a record landslide.
Tories, at the time, concluded it was best to let the hapless Major, the architect of their woes, soldier on and take the beating, before starting again under new leadership.
This time, again two years out from an election, Tories think a new leader could make all the difference, especially since in 2024 they will not be up against Blair.
Do not underestimate the difference a new face could make. Even though Major had been Foreign Secretary and Chancellor under Margaret Thatcher and complicit in many of her mistakes, when he replaced her as Prime Minister in 1990, many voters thought a new government had been formed, so different was he from his predecessor.
Nobody has a clue who the next prime minister will be. Speculation at this stage is pointless. But what he or she needs to do is clear, writes ANDREW NEIL
This is likely to happen again. Whoever replaces him will be nothing like Johnson (there is only one Boris, thankfully).
It will seem like a new administration, even if the policies don’t change much. Moreover larger-than-life Johnson, not his party, was the target of most of the nation’s ire towards the Government. Opposition politicians, driven doolally by his antics, directed all their firepower on him rather than the Tories.
As a result, as three tortured, tumultuous years unfolded, the Tory brand became more popular (or less unpopular) than the Johnson brand.
This will only reinforce the sense, as Johnson leaves the scene, that there has been a change of government.
Just as Major was propelled to a surprise victory (over Neil Kinnock, the Keir Starmer of his day) in 1992 because of this, it is still possible for the Tories to win in 2024.
So, as Lenin once asked, what is to be done?
The first thing Johnson’s successor will have to do is overhaul the 10 Downing Street operation.
Under Johnson it has been dysfunctional, weak, unprofessional, aimless, populated by inexperienced political pygmies — all of which reflected the multiple flaws of its boss. It was revamped three times, each new iteration just as bad as the one it replaced.
The next prime minister will need a strong, experienced Downing Street operation — of the sort that enhanced the Thatcher and Blair administrations — to galvanise government and give it a sense of urgency and momentum.
This will require a formidable chief of staff with a top team to keep ministers’ feet to the fire, ensure the prime minister’s writ runs throughout the Government and insist on departments implementing agreed policy.
None of this happened during the Johnson years.
Any successor who doubts this is an essential (if not sufficient) step for success should realise that if Johnson had surrounded himself with better people, he would never have come a cropper over Partygate or Pinchergate.
But there was no one of stature in 10 Downing Street to tell him to stop dissembling and blustering his way to downfall every time a scandal knocked on his door. It meant even trivial ones were elevated to an importance they didn’t deserve.
Then there’s policy. In many ways the past 30 months have been squandered (even allowing for the disruption of the pandemic) and there’s only so much the new prime minister will be able to do in the remaining two years.
Johnson was not removed because of major matters of state (like Thatcher and the poll tax). He was forced to fall on his sword because of his many character defects
Johnson was not removed because of major matters of state (like Thatcher and the poll tax). He was forced to fall on his sword because of his many character defects.
Even so, a policy refresh is badly needed. One of Johnson’s greatest deceits was to campaign on the right but govern on the left. This has confused Tories and left the government rudderless.
So the new PM will need to correct past mistakes, above all in economic policy.
The conservative Wall Street Journal’s verdict yesterday on Johnson economics is devastating: ‘Britain is now in the grip of an inflation crisis that Johnson has made worse at every turn.
‘Green taxes and regulations in service of [his] net-zero carbon ambitions helped energy prices spiral upward.
‘In the middle of this crisis, [he] raised the payroll tax [national insurance] 2.5 percentage points to fund the National Health Service, and he froze personal income tax brackets so households face a substantial tax increase as inflation lifts nominal earnings.
‘He refused to cut the consumption tax [VAT] or green levies on gasoline [petrol], diesel or household energy.’
Liz Truss (left) will pitch herself as the female Boris Johnson in the Tory leadership race – a candidate who can win seats both in the South and the Red Wall.
New Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi (right) chats at the Spectator summer party in Westminster
Suella Braverman (left), the Attorney General, has thrown her hat in the ring for the Tory leadership contest – although she has been given slim odds. Jeremy Hunt (right) is also mulling another run
The upshot was the stupidity of raising taxes going into a slowdown or even recession. So the next PM should consider reversing the rise in National Insurance, suspending VAT and green levies on domestic fuel and cutting VAT on petrol and diesel.
Income tax thresholds need to be revisited since too many low earners are now paying tax and too many middle-income earners are in the higher 40 per cent bracket.
It would also be an improvement if the new PM was less interested than Johnson in virtue-signalling on the international stage about global warming while ordinary families bore the brunt of the cost of the policies that follow from net zero. It should be possible to decarbonise energy without penalising plain folk.
All these steps would help mitigate the cost of living crisis, on top of what has already been announced. They would go someway to restoring the Tories’ credentials as tax cutters. And the new leader needn’t stop there.
If Britain wants to be seen as a magnet for business investment not only should next year’s planned increase in corporation tax (on company profits) from 19 per cent to 25 per cent be scrapped, it might be an idea to cut it to 15 per cent, making it one of the most competitive in the world.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak (right) and trade minister Penny Mordaunt (left) are among the bookies’ favourites to replace Mr Johnson, as the field of candidates begins to take shape
Nadine Dorries, right, next to Carrie Johnson and her daughter Romy outside 10 Downing Street on July 7. The culture secretary – one of the Prime Minister’s most stringent supporters – warned colleagues that they have to ‘keep the cabinet sailing steadily and keep the government running smoothly’
Sajid Javid, who stepped down as health secretary within minutes of Mr Sunak’s resignation, has 7/1 odds of taking his party’s reigns
The global competition for investment and talented people is fierce. Pro-business states such as Texas and Florida are wooing investment and talent from sclerotic, social democratic California, where a top Netflix executive told me this week it can take 10 years to get permission to build a new office block.
Portugal is establishing itself as a haven for tech entrepreneurs, with support for start-ups and low tax.
As a result, Lisbon is booming. Britain has spent three years moving in the opposite direction.
It is time to make us the most attractive destination for investment and talent in Europe, if not the Western world.
You’d think it might be a natural goal, post Brexit. But there has been no post-Brexit agenda.
It is time to up our ambitions. The plan to create one of the world’s great science and technology hubs through a London-Oxford-Cambridge triangle was shelved as part of the levelling up agenda to divert investment to the north, though it’s seen precious little investment.
A new leader with vision would do both: invest in high-speed connectivity — rail and broadband — between Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool to create a single massive labour market in the north and develop the southern triangle of the three great university cities.
That’s what the Victorians would have done. We need to recapture their scale and ambition.
At the end of 2021 the Chancellor was the number one candidate to succeed Boris Johnson.
A new prime minister will also need to put public sector reform back on the agenda. There has been almost none since 2015, even as more funds have been pumped in. Nearly all our public services still live in the analogue age, none more so than the NHS.
The gains to be made in efficiency and better quality of service from unleashing a digital revolution on them would be enormous.
If that means taking on the public-sector unions, so be it.
An ambitious government should pick its enemies.
Welfare reform was also neglected during the Johnson years. As a result more than five million are now claiming out-of-work benefits but they don’t count as unemployed because they’re not looking for work.
It used to be Tory policy to usher these people back into the labour market and wean them off benefits. It should be again.
There should be plenty for them to do, not just because of current labour shortages, but because we should be preparing our economy for the next global shock.
If you think Ukraine has brought disruption enough just wait till China starts to turn the screws on Taiwan.
That will result in the mother of all supply-chain shocks. We should be on-shoring and stockpiling everything from microchips to car parts to energy in anticipation.
Nobody has a clue who the next prime minister will be. Speculation at this stage is pointless. But what he or she needs to do is clear.
They will find the Johnson Government in even worse shape than they think. They will need the strategy and policies to reinvigorate British government and the country. It is by that yardstick they should be judged in the coming Tory leadership election.
And if the Tories can’t find anyone up to this agenda? Then they will merely tread water for two years until the next Labour government.
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