For many in the Labour Party and the country-at-large, our current prime minister, Boris Johnson, is the most right-wing leader in our country’s history. But despite his reputation for right-wing populism, those on the right of the Conservative Party won’t necessarily view his leadership as positively as might be expected.
Johnson’s reputation as a winner – he presides over the largest Conservative majority since 1987 – may inoculate him from the threat of Conservative Party rebellion for now. But for the party’s most conservative policy-heads, his premiership has so far failed to convert a majority of 80 seats into a policy programme that addresses their grievances, and this may be cause for unrest.
The left may sometimes paint Johnson as a hyper-conservative, but his policy agenda seems anything but. In recent weeks, Johnson has unveiled two pieces of legislation that many in the Conservative party grassroots see as an assault on traditional values. Under the recently announced ‘no-fault divorce’ law, a couple will only have to state that their marriage has broken down irretrievably to achieve a legal separation, removing the previous requirement that spouses must live apart for five years or have some other reason for the split, such as adultery. In a letter to the Telegraph, right-wing Conservative politicians including Sir Desmond Swayne, Fiona Bruce and Sir John Hayes appealed to the government to stop “undermining the commitment of marriage”.
The continuing rise of female employment in the economy—often seen as a proxy for the declining role of motherhood in family life—is another metric that causes those on the right of the Conservative Party to be concerned. By the end of 2018, female employment in the UK had reached 72%, a record high. That the highest rise in employment between 1997 and 2017 was seen in women with dependent children – a statistic that a not-insignificant number of Conservative Party traditionalists view as alarming – will cause the Prime Minister no concern whatsoever. As a father to an unknown number of children (at least publicly) by an undisclosed number of women, Johnson is not well-known for his adherence to traditional social mores.
The recent announcement that the government will ease restrictions on Sunday trading laws to help restart the economy has provoked panic among some Christians, who feel the sanctity of its weekly day of rest (and with it the final symbols of the Christian faith) are beginning to fade from public life altogether. The old truism that the Church of England is the “Tory party at prayer” has never felt less true.
The firing of conservative intellectuals like Roger Scruton, and short-lived Downing Street staffers like Andrew Sabisky, at the hands of concerted campaigns from progressives, has left many Conservatives (both big and small ‘C’) with a foul taste in their mouths. Number 10’s stubborn refusal to fire Dominic Cummings can be seen as an over-reliance on the centralising, all-powerful staffer; but also as a refusal to give in to progressive mobs that many Conservatives see as unrepresentative of the country at large. In sticking by his chief advisor, Johnson has signalled he won’t always cave to campaigning journalists. But, ironically, by standing by his staffer Johnson has lost political capital, likely meaning he is less able to stick to his guns similarly in the future without facing consequences within his own party.
Many in Britain’s oldest political party would also be keen for the prime minister to defenestrate the publicly-funded quangos, and powerful cultural organisations like the BBC, who regularly come under fire for harbouring a liberal worldview that is at odds with the party’s own. For those on the socially conservative end of the spectrum, this anger, and the sense that government money props up institutions that eat away at Britain from the inside, is all too real. The fact that their ranks are filled with the party’s ideological enemies—the university-educated, cosmopolitan under-forties—only provides more reason to bring forward their managed decline.
There may be moves to alter BBC funding by removing the legal obligation to pay the licence fee – but it’s unlikely Boris Johnson will be the paradigm-shifting culture warrior many on the right have been dreaming of. For one, Johnson is a liberal himself, if not always a perfect one. While his comments in 1998 about “tank topped bum boys” have followed him around ever since (along with his long history of other derogatory remarks), he was also one of the few Tory MPs to defy the party whip to vote against Section 28, the law introduced in 1998 that made it illegal to discuss homosexuality in schools. In 2010, Johnson also became one of the first senior Conservatives to support same-sex marriage, two years ahead of then-President of the United States, and liberal Democrat, Barack Obama. Obama is a man universally viewed as to the left of, more progressive, or more liberal than Johnson on almost every issue. As is often the case, preconceptions can be deceiving.
That’s not to say that Johnson’s track record on LGBTQ issues hasn’t been patchy: leftist activists can find plenty of shortcomings to shake their fist at. But the bigger picture reveals Johnson as not only one of the most liberal members of the Conservative Party, but perhaps its most liberal Prime Minister to date.
On immigration, despite the recently announced restrictions on overseas low-skilled workers entering the UK, Johnson has always struck an optimistic tone about the global movement of people into Britain, if one that also tacitly acknowledges the concern of many in his party and across the country. If the reactionary right are looking for an anti-immigrant, culturally-conservative champion to lead them in the post-Brexit landscape, Boris Johnson is surely not it.
Johnson also presides over a Conservative Party that has drifted ever leftward on most social and cultural issues during their decade in power—a trend he appears mostly content with, having been in its vanguard as the nationally-recognised Mayor of London for much of it. The last Conservative PM, Theresa May, began her premiership with a speech that sounded more concerned with social and economic inequality than the previous two Labour Prime Ministers. Ten years ago, David Cameron won power with a laser-like focus on appearing ‘modern’ and eschewing any policy position that might appear the slightest bit fond of the past. Under Johnson, the party’s right hoped this course would be reversed, or at least slowed. A brief glance at the government’s recent activity leaves them little to be excited about.
Despite this, Johnson’s fallbacks have landed quietly, although his fans would be wise not to be hubristic about the lack of rebellion on his backbenches. When MPs and party members voted for him last year, they knew they were choosing a man who could win, not one who was moored by deeply-held principles. (When asked about this he once jokingly replied that he had “absolutely no convictions except one—and that was from a long time ago, for speeding.”) Now Johnson has handed them a majority, those in the rank-and-file who want more than just another blue face in Number 10—who want a traditionalist conservative agenda for the country—will grow ever more hungry. Whether or not Boris Johnson feeds his true blue Tory lions will only depend on how comfortable Johnson is with being eaten himself.