The Guardian view on Tory turbulence: a problem of substance not style

Conservatives who now complain about Boris Johnson’s failings knew all of his weaknesses when they chose him as their leader

Last modified on Wed 24 Nov 2021 14.09 EST

There is a growing chorus in the Conservative party calling for the prime minister to be less like Boris Johnson. That does not mean MPs are ready to replace him, but his style, once cherished for campaign effectiveness, is now seen as a governing liability.

Disillusionment over the prime minister’s handling of the Owen Paterson lobbying scandal and its aftermath has been compounded by a vacuous, poorly delivered speech to business leaders on Monday. Hostile briefing from inside the government has created the impression of profound dysfunction at the top.

Such things are often signs of a regime in terminal decline, but not always. Mr Johnson is a resilient politician whose appeal to voters is not dependent on qualities prized by Westminster veterans. A chaotic digression on the subject of Peppa Pig where there should have been an economic strategy was not some rare unprofessional lapse. Clowning is Mr Johnson’s vocation. It has worked for him before, which is why the Tory party made him leader.

It is disingenuous of Conservatives to complain now about a method of governing that was the inevitable consequence of giving power to a man who is allergic to responsibility. To ask whether Mr Johnson is underperforming relative to his usual standard poses the wrong question. It makes issues of immense substance – the absence of a credible plan for “levelling up”; systemic tolerance of corruption – subordinate to Westminster’s fixation on political theatre.

The practice of MPs taking second jobs, for example, or the pattern of Tory donors taking seats in the House of Lords, long predates Mr Johnson’s administration. It was revealed this week that David Cameron successfully lobbied Lloyds Banking Group to reverse a decision to cut ties with Greensill Capital – a finance company that had developed close ties to Downing Street and then employed the former prime minister after his retirement. The point of contact at Lloyds was a peer, a previous Tory treasurer who had given millions to the party and whom Mr Cameron had himself ennobled in 2015.

It is absurd that seats in the UK legislature are apportioned that way. The blurring of boundaries between government, party finance and private business discredits British democracy. If Mr Johnson’ inept handling of one case has meant that the whole tawdry apparatus comes in for more scrutiny he will, perversely, have performed a kind of public service. If Conservative MPs are angry with their leader for making them vulnerable to that scrutiny, they are rather missing the point about his moral and administrative lapses.

On the question of whether levelling up is more than a slogan, Tory disquiet over the truncation of high-speed rail plans for northern England might just as readily be directed at the chancellor as the prime minister. It is Rishi Sunak’s attachment to hawkish fiscal discipline that checks Mr Johnson’s more munificent impulses.

The same might reasonably be said of shortcomings in the health and social care bill, which provoked a substantial backbench rebellion earlier this week. The proposed law does not match Tory election pledges to protect homeowners from having to cash in their assets when paying for care. Such betrayals by No 10 are a joint enterprise with the Treasury.

It is hardly surprising that Mr Johnson’s disorderly behaviour is causing problems for his MPs. The fault is theirs for collaborating in the fiction that he was a suitable candidate to run the country. The Tories were happy when his incompetence was more competently masked. Mr Johnson is not the cause of Conservative problems. His leadership is a symptom of a deeper rot in the party.

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