What can Boris Johnson and the Tories learn from Tony Blair? While Labour’s former leader remains deeply unpopular – and indeed ultimately fell over a grave misjudgement – he was the UK’s last successful prime minister. Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May and, now, Boris Johnson exist in his shadow. The PM would be wise then to look to Blair’s rise to power – and his strategic approach to government – to learn some lessons.
In a speech yesterday, Blair warned that:
‘There is a gaping hole in the governing of Britain where new ideas should be.’
Blair is right. While Partygate continues to dominate the headlines, the real failure of Johnson’s administration is not bad behaviour or Downing Street festivities, but the lack of a political strategy to prepare the UK for the future.
Blair says there are three areas where the government needs to have a strategy: how to manage Brexit; how to manage climate change; and how to prepare for the technology shifts that are currently taking place. Boris Johnson has dropped the ball on all of these issues.
Will Partygate bring down Boris Johnson? It’s hard to say. Next week’s report from Sue Gray will probably be decisive. If the PM has lied to parliament, he will go. If not, then perhaps not. Either way, there will probably be more embarrassing revelations to come in the days ahead. Yet the profoundly depressing aspect of the Partygate story is that it is purely tribal. This is about the same old ideological conflicts that have been tearing the Conservatives apart since the 1970s.
Margaret Thatcher was the last Tory leader with an actual agenda. If Johnson stays, he will change superficially, but not in substance. He may lose weight, sport a new hair cut, and engage in more diversionary tactics, like the recent assault on the BBC. If he goes, he will be replaced by someone who will look more respectable, but who will also not have a strategic agenda. It’s hard to get excited about either scenario.
So what can the Tories learn from Blair? One of the important substantive points Blair made in his speech to the Institute of Global Health Innovation is that the system of taxation in Britain needs to shift away from labour and capital to other sources. Fuel duties will have to be replaced by road pricing if drivers switch to electric cars. Outdated 20th century social systems, state pensions and health care systems are unlikely to be sustainable and optimal in this environment.
Are the Tories prepared to have conversations about these issues? It doesn’t appear so: none of this discussion is taking place in the Tory party right now. Unfortunately, Labour is not looking at these issues either. Keir Starmer is focused on Johnson, the man. In doing so, he is making the same mistake as Tory backbenchers who seem determined to oust Boris but aren’t sure what they want in his place.
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