Just how right wing would a new Johnson government be?

18 Nov 2019

DRD Partner Paul Barnes assesses just how “right-wing” this Conservative party has become and will be if elected in the 2019 General Election.

Just how right wing?

Jeremy Corbyn has accused Boris Johnson of presiding over the most right-wing government in living memory. It’s a cry that’s been taken up by many others, citing the Tories’ now clearly pro-Brexit stance and the resignation or expulsion of over 20 of their MPs as evidence of this rightward shift in the governing party.

Add to that the promotion to high office of politicians more on the right the party, such as Home Secretary Priti Patel, and it looks like Corbyn is on to something. If the Conservatives win this election we are in for a long ride to the right.

Or are we?

Because for many Tories at the moment, things look alarmingly different. If you accept that supporting Brexit is a right-wing stance, then it is in huge contrast with much of what else Johnson’s party is currently trying to sell to the electorate.

Yes, supporting Brexit is seen as shorthand for being right wing.  But only by those who will fight to the end to remain in the EU.  Instead, for a party that committed to honouring the result of the referendum, supporting Brexit is simply carrying out the wishes of 17.4 million voters together with, one would hope, many remain voters who accept that their side lost and that democracy should prevail.

So supporting Brexit seems a legitimate position for Boris Johnson’s party to take into the election.  Not right wing, but pragmatic in the electoral circumstances.

Yes, 21 Tory MPs resigned or were sacked for supporting measures to undermine the Government’s negotiating position, but was that about ideology or simply party management?

Most of them are back fighting the election as Conservatives. Those that are not haven’t been replaced by hard right candidates. Ken Clarke’s replacement, for example, is from the Cameron-style think tank Policy Exchange whose founding director, Nick Boles, was one of those MPs who left the party in recent months.

More importantly, looking at its policies aside from Brexit, is a Johnson Government going to be “the most right-wing government in living memory”? We still await the manifesto, but signs are pointing in quite the opposite direction.  A bidding war with the Liberal Democrats over the number of trees planted (I’ll see your 30 million and raise you another 30 million). More money for the NHS. Turning on the public spending tap in an end to austerity. Philip Hammond and George Osborne, hardly Tory right wingers, must be aghast at this apparent shift from responsible economic management.

If the Conservatives are going to win the election outright their manifesto is going to have to appeal to voters in seats that have never returned a Tory MP. The most right-wing manifesto in living memory (and there are many living who remember Mrs Thatcher’s manifestos) is not going to wash in those seats.

So, would a new Johnson government on 13 December really be that conflicted? Hard right and soft left all at the same time? We will have to wait and see if the Conservatives win. But it feels like his opponents’ rallying cry of “the most right-wing government in living memory” might not be worth the bus it could be written on.