One of the things that distinguishes Boris Johnson from the last three Tory prime ministers is that he has a comfortable majority. This gives him a lot of flexibility. Unlike David Cameron, Theresa May or John Major, Johnson can handle a parliamentary rebellion of quite some size. Indeed, the 25 Tory MPs who in July voted against the cut to foreign aid would have wiped out any Conservative majority since the 1992 election.
Until recently, Johnson hadn’t used his 80-seat majority much. He did take on large Tory rebellions over Covid powers, but the significance of these revolts was reduced by the fact Labour either abstained or backed the government on virus measures. ‘In the past it has appeared we don’t know how to use our majority,’ says one secretary of state. He boasts that the victory in the Commons over raising National Insurance ‘shows we do’.
The government is beginning to learn how to use its majority, but in the last few weeks it has also advertised its own limitations. The proposal for vaccine passports, which were meant to be introduced by the end of this month for anyone going to a nightclub, has been downgraded to a ‘plan B’ option because of the hostility of Tory MPs to them. Since Labour and the Liberal Democrats also opposed the idea, Tory backbenchers organising the opposition were confident that they had the numbers to block vaccine passports in the Commons.
Johnson has not abandoned the idea entirely. The government’s autumn and winter plan for Covid makes it clear that they could still be introduced if further restrictions are needed to ease the pressure on hospitals. But Downing Street is in no doubt about the parliamentary opposition to them. The government would only have a chance of winning a vote on the issue if it was clear that the alternative was to close nightclubs altogether.
Tory MPs are also forcing the government to rethink planning reforms. Last year backbench opposition made the government rewrite its housing algorithm, which was initially designed so that most homes would have to be built in places where prices were least affordable compared with local wages — in affluent southern seats, in other words. Instead, the algorithm is now designed to promote development on brownfield land, with a particular emphasis on the north and the Midlands.
After caving in to opposition on the algorithm, the government hoped to be able to proceed with its plans. However, backbenchers still have issues with the policy. Tory MPs are more worried than ever since June’s Chesham and Amersham by-election in which the Lib Dems, who campaigned heavily against the government’s proposed planning reforms, took the seat from the Tories with a 25 per cent swing. The government is adamant that it will bring forward a ‘serious set of proposals’ for reform of the planning system, but it seems very probable that there will not be the radical change that was once expected.
The debate over planning illustrates the Tory party’s complicated relationship with property. Tory MPs know that owning a home is one of the things that makes people more likely to vote for them: 86 per cent of the party’s seats have above average levels of home ownership. But they also know that many homeowners are far from keen on more development in their neighbourhood. One ambitious Tory MP told me that his approach to planning in his -constituency was to oppose nearly all new developments but turn up very quickly to canvass the new residents if any did go ahead. He had reasoned that as soon as these people were his constituents, they would want him to oppose any new housebuilding.
The Tories should be wary, though. The turn against them in London, where Conservatives have gone from holding two thirds of the seats in 1987 to less than a third today, is an example of what happens when the homeownership rate among 35- to 44-year-olds falls dramatically.
What does it say about today’s Conservative party that its MPs can force the government to drop vaccine passports and dilute planning reform but not stop a tax rise? It should be noted that opponents of the first two proposals had months to mobilise, whereas the whips rushed the tax increase vote through parliament at speed. Yet the lack of opposition to the Health and Social Care levy does show that low taxation is not the top Tory priority in the way that it was at the turn of the century.
Tory MPs aren’t enthusiastic about the National Insurance rise, but most think it can be defended if there’s rapid progress in clearing the backlog in the NHS. There are, however, concerns that the government has — in the words of one minister — ‘a public spending agenda, not a public service reform agenda’.
What worries Tory MPs most is what one Boris loyalist calls the failure to ‘set out a direction of travel… The party has to be more ambitious than just not being Labour’. Many Tories were shaken by how their own activists spent the weekend asking them what the government now stands for.
The test for the cabinet reshuffle is whether it will help give the government this sense of direction. Not everything can be driven by the centre. The reforms from the Cameron years that have lasted were driven by secretaries of state who knew their subject and were, largely, left to get on with it.
The hardest task for any governing party is renewing itself in office. The Tories have managed to do that successfully in recent years. It is remarkable that the Conservatives won more seats and votes in their fourth election win in a row than they had done in their three previous victories. But now that Britain has left the EU and the Covid crisis seems to be receding, the government needs a new purpose to define it.
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