01 July 2021
The Broken Eggs
Boris the Martyr?
By John Watson
Robespierre’s famous aphorism to the effect that you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs was originally delivered in French. Nonetheless it sets a universal challenge and it is by its reaction to that challenge that the current Conservative government will ultimately be judged.
It already has experience here. In the case of the Brexit agreement with the EU, the broken eggs included the fishermen and the Unionist politicians of Northern Ireland. Both groups feel betrayed, and indeed they have been, as the grinding process of negotiation has meant that red lines by which they thought they were protected have had to be surrendered for the common good. Then look at the proposed trade deal with Australia. Yes, it is an important element in the focusing of the UK on Asia, but the farming lobby are concerned at the potential competition. Again eggs may well be being broken here and they are eggs in a nest which is central to Conservative support.
Well, you may say, Brexit and all that flowed from it was never going to be a smooth process but the number of casualties is reasonably low in relation to the electorate as a whole so the government must hope that overall those pleased with its achievements will outweigh the disappointed. That may be so in relation to Brexit but the by-election result at Chesham and Amersham where a safe Conservative seat was easily won by the Liberal Democrats shows that the eggs broken by the government’s levelling up agenda have the potential to overthrow the current ministry.
By-election defeats are easy to explain away. A poor candidate, say some. The government’s supporters were not worried enough to leave their homes, say others. There wasn’t enough publicity, says a further group of apologists. Do not be fooled by these superficial responses. The truth is surely that the voters of this rural Tory seat were upset by planning changes which would result in substantial development in the constituency and by HS2 too which would result in a line for high-speed trains defiling their rolling hills. They are the eggs here and they have no intention of being broken if they can possibly help it. And, at least on the planning changes, the electors in many other Tory constituencies are likely to think the same way.
That is the trouble with levelling up agendas. To provide housing you need to build houses and that is going to upset those whose backyard is spoiled. To reform higher education you will probably need to close or reclassify some of the lesser universities, bodies whose status is the pride and joy of the communities in which they function. To push through a green energy policy you need to divert resources which involves either unpopular cuts elsewhere or unpopular price rises imposed upon the public. For each reform there is an unpopular cost and in many cases that cost will be borne by those who would normally have voted Conservative.
That leaves Boris Johnson in much the same quandary as it left Robert Peel in the mid 1840s. Peel knew that the tariffs on corn were unsustainable – they were the cause of starvation in Ireland and an obstruction to the urbanisation of labour necessary to drive an increasingly mechanised economy. On the other hand the tariffs supported the income of Tory landowners and many of Peel’s Conservative MPs would vote against their abolition. What to do? Peel forced through the Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 relying on support from the opposition. By doing so he split his party, destroyed his own government, effectively terminated his political career – and set the country on a path of prosperity and power. No doubt he foresaw all this, knew what the consequences would be for himself and the Tories, but thought that the national interest made the breaking of eggs on which he and they relied imperative. There is something heroic about his action.
Although Boris also has to face the question of whether to undermine his own support by pushing through reforms which he believes to be right, his problem is in a sense more difficult one. Whereas with Peel all the emphasis was on the repeal of one piece of legislation, the levelling up agenda of the current government will involve a number of measures causing angst in different pockets of Tory support. It is the cumulative weight of that angst which will bring the party down in the end, possibly splitting it between those who would leave everything to the market and those, like Boris himself, who favour quite a high level of state intervention. It will not be a grand gesture, then, but more a running fight.
But for all that the gauntlet is down. Will the government push ahead with reform and take the electoral consequences as the broken eggs move off to the Liberal Democrats? Or will they pike the issue, limit themselves to speeches rather than deeds and chatter on about fundamental reform to an increasingly cynical electorate?
One of the reasons that Boris Johnson gave for going into politics was that they do not put up statues to journalists. If he really wants his statue and to go down in the history books as a maker of the new order, there is only one course. He must push forward with his levelling up agenda wholeheartedly and ruthlessly and watch his support ebb away as more and more of the electorate regard themselves as broken eggs. For a politician who loves public approval it will be a difficult thing to do but the road of the martyr is a hard one and that is true whether the martyrdom is physical or merely political.
Tile photo: Fernando Andrade on Unsplash