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Johnson’s populism has given the Tories a lifeline – but they are running out of ideas

After almost a decade in government, the party has nothing left to offer but a tired conservatism

Andy Beckett

Since Boris Johnson became prime minister there’s been a quiet dread on the left, and a less quiet excitement on the right, that the Tories have found a new magic formula – one that will renew their nine-year-old government. A cartoonishly charismatic leader, a shameless softening of austerity, populist attacks on liberals and the nationalist adventure of Brexit: all this has been carefully calculated, the fear goes, so that the Conservatives can sweep out of their southern English heartlands and into the electorally decisive north and Midlands.

Predictions of an imminent Tory breakthrough and new ascendancy are familiar in British politics – it’s arguably the commentariat’s default analysis. Only two years ago, Theresa May’s combination of tut-tutting provincial conservatism and disapproval of the worst aspects of capitalism briefly persuaded many observers, from the editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, to the usually reliable political scientist David Runciman, that she could dominate politics for years to come.

With May, and again with Johnson, this assumption of a coming Tory supremacy has relied heavily on the polls. Since Johnson became leader, almost all of them, despite different methodologies, have revealed widening leads over Labour. The polling website Britain Elects has interpreted these as showing a current Tory vote share of about 35%, roughly 10 points ahead of Labour; and the analytical website Electoral Calculus has extrapolated a Tory majority on 12 December of about 70. That would be by far the party’s largest since Margaret Thatcher’s third election victory in 1987.

There are obvious flaws to this suggestion that Johnson will win decisively. In 2017, May had an even bigger initial poll lead, but it shrank to almost nothing by election day. And this year’s contest is potentially more volatile still. Yet Johnson’s poll advantage has been one of the few certainties clearly driving events during this chaotic autumn: it largely explains his determination to have an election, and Labour’s debate on delaying it.

But even if the forecast margin of Tory victory does turn out to be accurate, such a win may not be quite as conclusive as it seems. Election results don’t tell you everything about the long-term health of a political party. Getting a majority of 70 with only a little over a third of the total vote would put the Conservatives among the most unpopular victors of a modern British general election. And on flimsy mandates strong governments are rarely built.

Like the Conservatives now, New Labour had been in power for almost a decade. They were associated above all with one, immensely divisive policy – instead of Brexit, the war in Iraq – and they faced a resurgent Liberal Democratic party that was opposed to that policy. And like the Tories now, New Labour also faced an official opposition with an unpopular leader, Michael Howard, who was portrayed by the ruling party as an extremist, and was considered by many voters not to be a plausible prime minister.

In the election the anti-government vote split, and New Labour scraped together 35% of the vote: enough to give the party a majority of 66. It was “a minor miracle”, Tony Blair wrote in his memoirs. But at the time the result was widely seen as a sign of New Labour’s enduring hegemony, and of the Conservatives’ continuing impotence. The day after the election, Howard announced he would step down as leader – just as many of Jeremy Corbyn’s enemies are eagerly assuming he will do if Labour loses next month.

Yet in fact 2005 was the beginning of the end for New Labour. Ground down by growing public hostility, accumulating scandals and internal enemies, Blair lasted just two more years as premier: “the worst” of his tenure, he wrote afterwards. Meanwhile the Conservatives chose a leader, David Cameron, who was younger and fresher than Howard and than Blair himself. At his first prime minister’s questions, Cameron cockily but lethally told Blair: “You were the future once.”

Politics never precisely repeats itself, but it has cycles of decay and renewal. Johnson’s sporadic efforts to present himself as a new sort of Conservative – less cosy with the business establishment, more interested in northern England – show some awareness of the risks facing any party after a decade in power. And unlike Blair in 2005, he hasn’t been prime minister for long.

But if he is still in the job next year, he will be a politician in his mid-50s who has been playing the naughty schoolboy of British public life for more than three decades. He will be faced with the very grown-up task of negotiating and then administering Brexit – a much more intractable problem than the much more able Blair ever faced. And it’s likely Johnson will also be facing a new Labour leader with none of Corbyn’s personal baggage but with similar, popular leftwing policies.

The social, political and economic challenge of actually “getting Brexit done” should not be underestimated. This week the independent National Institute of Economic and Social Research estimated that “in the long run the UK economy would be 3.5% smaller … compared to continued EU membership” if the UK secures a free trade deal with the EU by 2021 – a timetable many authorities on trade deals consider optimistic. In the UK’s already mean and sluggish economy, a shrinkage of 3.5% may make Johnson’s airy promises about a post-Brexit, deregulated capitalism – in essence, a pretty tired and traditional Conservative worldview – impossible to sell to many voters.

Then there is the Tories’ lack of serious engagement with the climate crisis, with young voters, with multiculturalism and Britain’s growing cities – and their preoccupation, instead, with Britain’s shrinking proportion of elderly white voters, and with gaming the constitution and the electoral system. All long-running governments become complacent and incurious in the end – even the most dynamic ones, as the recently published final volume of Charles Moore’s Thatcher biography shows in unsparing detail.

The drama of Brexit, and of all the Tory leadership battles and U-turns since 2010, has obscured how much this Conservative government has aged over the past nine years. It may not be tottering quite yet, but it will soon enough.

• Andy Beckett is a Guardian columnist

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