Our new prime minister has emerged from the womb and skipped several cognitive developmental stages, progressing straight to teenage temper tantrums. Yet, it would be naïve to assume that this is done entirely out of petulance for the situation he has finagled his way into.
Even though it is doubtful that Johnson and his strategists were hoping to be in this situation at the end of the week, with the prorogation about to guillotine any prospect of an election before 31st October, only the most incompetent of advisors and politicians would have failed to wargame this. And whilst Cummings and Johnson may not be the Medicis, nor are they cretins.
What then, is the ambition? Last week’s speech, with the uniformed cadets massed behind him, is the clearest example of where Johnson is going to go when he eventually gets his election.
He is going to go low.
Much of the Conservative’s traditional base is ostracised, with even some on the pro-Brexit wing of his party concerned at the barbarous dispatching of party grandees like Ken Clarke and Philip Hammond. Such brutality, allied with the toxic rhetoric that now emanates from No. 10, means that well-heeled market towns like Cheltenham, and metropolitan seats like Putney or Richmond, are lost.
In all likelihood, they’ll fall to the Lib Dems, especially if the Remain Alliance maintains its unified stance.
Couple this with the fact that Scotland is about as likely to return any Tory seats as the Queen is to ride down from Balmoral and declare her divine right to rule (although even that no longer seems beyond the realm of possibility), and Johnson is looking some way short of being able to pull a majority out of his hat – or even an expectation of being the largest party in a hung parliament.
The main constituency that the Conservatives will be reliant upon is that Brexiter part of the Tory party that will stick with him come hell or high water. These are the voters who are so pathologically revolted by Europe that they will accept anything provided we leave. Such voters will range from those like John Redwood-intelligent, yet ideologically opposed to the EU for reasons lost in the mists of time – to Mark Francois and Andrew Bridgen’s ilk, who aren’t bright enough to work out why they’re opposed to Europe, but are (just) bright enough know that they don’t like the Germans. After all, they fought the war. Or at least think they did.
This segment of the party will ensure the Tories hold onto a fair few seats, probably those like North East Derbyshire or North Shropshire. However, this is no way to get a majority, or even the chance to be the largest party. Other than these Europhobes, there are therefore only three potential constituencies of voters left: Labour voters who voted leave, non-voters who turned out to vote leave, and then non-voters at large. For the Tories to stand any prospect of retaining their superiority in the Chamber, they will have to pull in voters from all three of these pools. This will require Johnson to refashion the Conservatives as the Brexit party in all but name, but in throwing out the bathwater, trying somehow to cling on to bits of the baby.
The first limb of such an approach can been seen in the purge of the Conservative rebels. Hammond, Gauke and Clarke are hardly bleeding heart liberals, yet in eliminating them, Johnson can project the Conservatives as the real heart of leave. It nullifies the siren call of Farage’s Brexit party, who might otherwise carve off enough votes to allow Labour or the Lib Dems to come through the middle and take the seat, or even take it themselves. It’s likely that this purge was merely the beginning of such a strategy, with rumours abounding that the ‘no-deal’ pledge will be extended beyond the Cabinet to all MPs standing. Such a pledge will oust or silence any remaining waverers, and confirm to the public that they really mean it this time.
This also provides a mechanism for Johnson to try and pull across some of the Europhobic Labour wing. Much has been made of the fact that in the Labour heartlands, whilst Labour voters might have been willing to vote for a referendum campaign headed by Tories, or might be willing to vote Farage’s latest creation, they will be congenitally repulsed at the thought of voting for the party of Thatcher. In that sense, defenestrating MPs who may have at least fleeting name recognition amongst this part of the electorate creates the sense that this is a new, different, party. No longer is it the party of the milk-snatcher, but it is led by Boris Johnson, who’s busy dismissing MPs like Clarke, who represent the Thatcherite era, and replacing them with candidates in his image.
Sajid Javid’s spending statement, not that anyone has yet noticed that it took place, also fuels such an agenda. Conservatives who only recently revelled in cutting public services to the bone, campaigning on the need for us to live within our means, are now living large. Money is no longer any object, and Keynesianism is the order of the day. This statement revealed huge bundles of cash were being sent out to the police, to the military, to the health service. Such an approach may encounter difficulties with Labour, with Corbyn unlikely to be the one to blink first when it comes to making spending pledges, but it may be enough to overcome the image of the Tories as the party of austerity, and pull some votes in key seats their way.
The non-voters are the final target. Johnson needs the non-voters. He needs those who feel disenfranchised by the elites of all parties, who feel put upon, who think that Britain has lost its place in the world. Of the forty percent plus of the electorate who don’t vote, the Conservatives are counting on at least some of them to feel this way. They will rerun the election as the referendum (not least because Cummings doesn’t know how else to run a campaign successfully), and they will want to make them angry.
Ultimately, they are counting on the votes of people who don’t know, don’t understand, or just don’t care. Manipulating their own base, plus luring in some voters from Labour and the Brexit party will not be enough. This is likely to be the thinking behind images like those last week. These voters don’t see a prime minister standing in front of a cadre of officers and think of Mussolini. They think it looks like a prime minister standing up for law and order in the face of rising crime. They don’t see a prime minister ousting rebellious MPs and think of Stalin. They think it looks like a prime minister removing a rebellious faction. They don’t see the lies, the deceit, the manipulation. After all, they’ve never had to pay attention before. Except before we had a parliament making decisions – not the ‘will of the people’.
If such a plot works, we should all be very concerned. Not because these voters shouldn’t have a voice, or should be ignored, but because these voters will have been manipulated for their support – but then Johnson will need to keep it, or find another way to keep himself in power. Keeping it is likely to be difficult. Instead, he might look to Hungary, the ‘ally’ that the government is considering asking to veto our extension request. Orban, their prime minister, was a liberal. Funded by Soros, educated at Oxford and elected their leader. Now? He’s a dictator in all but name.
Some, doubtless, will say such things don’t happen here. But they won’t have an answer when you ask why not.