No. 10 will be waiting nervously at 10pm on Thursday. Will the end of voting in the local elections bring forward more Tory MPs calling for Boris Johnson to go? At the moment, that seems unlikely: there is a sense among the plotters against the Prime Minister that Thursday is not the right time. So Johnson will move on to the Queen’s speech. But this will reveal another problem for the government. There will be lots of legislation but a lack of a defining theme. This has been a creeping issue for Johnson since his 2019 victory.
The two central Tory promises in that campaign were to ‘get Brexit done’ and to stop Jeremy Corbyn: both were achieved quickly. The lack of a subsequent agenda was obscured by the pandemic, which dominated from March 2020 on. But it is becoming more apparent again, with the problem being compounded by Johnson’s reluctance to make difficult decisions.
There are many reasons for the lack of a defining agenda. One is that the Conservatives have been in power for 12 years and renewal in government is the hardest task for any party. The education and welfare reforms that defined the Tories’ first term in government were both developed in opposition. Planning reform, the one big supply side idea the government had, was paused because of the opposition of Tory MPs. The levelling-up bill will contain some measures on planning but they won’t deal with the fundamentally unpredictable and sclerotic nature of the system that so holds back the economy.
Perhaps the biggest obstacles to a radical Tory agenda, though, are the philosophical splits in the party. These apply on both economic and cultural issues. Just look at how the coming Queen’s Speech will carry over a free speech bill designed to protect challenging but difficult arguments on university campuses and an online safety bill with the aim of protecting people from content that might cause them harm — a term that no one dares to define. As one government source acknowledges, ‘the freedom of speech bill and the online safety bill don’t align well with each other’.
Before the Tories go to the country again, they’ll have to show they have a plan for dealing with the problems facing Britain, from low growth to the ever-lengthening NHS waiting list. If they can’t do that, they’ll be in trouble.
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