Prime minister Boris Johnson’s election manifesto is lacking in ‘big ideas’


We have scant idea about what Boris Johnson thinks about much, nor what guides him, what fires him, Sky’s Lewis Goodall writes.

                              Prime minister Boris Johnson's election manifesto is lacking in 'big ideas'

Margaret Thatcher once spoke about her aims, curiously enough, quoting Marx: “Economics are the method, but the object is to change the soul.”

On that basis, Jeremy Corbyn’s politics have more in common with Thatcher’s than Boris Johnson’s.

Conservative politicians (and others besides) admire Mrs Thatcher for her conviction. Hers was a politics which painted in primary colours. She was, as few politicians are, a political teacher, one who told voters a story about the world and made sense of it through the words she spoke.

Few politicians fall into that category. Tony Benn was one, Enoch Powell another. Tony Blair was too, though the stories he told tended to not be quite so rigid.

                              Prime minister Boris Johnson's election manifesto is lacking in 'big ideas'

Corbyn is likewise. Whether you approve or disapprove of his ideas, he has a clear world view. His latest manifesto is the apotheosis of the thinking of his wing of the Labour Party.

You might think that it was all nonsense, perhaps dangerous nonsense. But in a way, it doesn’t matter.

Whether you like what he says or not, find what he says realistic or not, whether you think it revolutionary or reactionary, reheated 1970s socialism or cutting-edge political thinking, there is no doubt that Corbyn’s Labour has a deep critique of our contemporary political economy, i.e. how the modern economy works and distributes economic and political power. Everything hangs off that central spine.

The question is, what do Johnson and the Conservatives have to match it? Beyond the completion of the Brexit project, the Tory campaign has so far been completely light on details – of even what that Brexit might look like.

From what we know about the Tory manifesto, we can see much of it is quite small beer. Some money for worthy causes, ending car park fines in hospitals for the terminally ill, £2bn for filling in potholes.

But there is no central thesis, no big idea, no world view, beyond that the British economy has bags of potential (could be going “gang busters” as the PM says) were it not for Brexit uncertainty.

For much of this decade, the party’s entire political project was anchored around austerity economics but that too has vanished. In its place is a pledge to spend money but not as much money as Labour.

It appears, to slightly misquote another Marxist, that the old Conservative thinking is dying and the new cannot be born. There is a Corbynism, there most certainly is no Johnsonism.

                              Prime minister Boris Johnson's election manifesto is lacking in 'big ideas'

You might say that is no bad thing – that Labour’s dogma is doing them little good in the polls right now. Moreover, when both David Cameron and Theresa May tried to articulate a more comprehensive overview of their philosophies, in the 2010 and 2017 elections respectively, it backfired.

However, there are two dangers in the Johnson approach, one for the Tories and one for the rest of us.

For the Tories, without any governing spine to guide them, that without any central organising idea, no roadmap of where they are going, no ideological tool kit to combat the Labour leftward drift, they risk being buffeted around, of losing ideological grip, that in the marketplace of ideas, politics drifts away from them, even if they win electoral victories as it did for the Conservatives in the 1950s.

For the rest of us, it is that we will be governed by a man and party, without little route to where he or they are going. For even though this might be an election called on the prospectus of ending a particular political problem (Brexit) it could be a parliament to govern us until 2024.

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If there is a Conservative majority, if there is not much more detail in the Tory manifesto, on all sorts of areas of policy, we may have little idea what Johnson proposes to do with it, perhaps less idea than with any incoming prime minister since John Major.

We have scant idea about what he thinks about much, nor what guides him, what fires him, what he wants Britain to be. Is he a Tory liberal? A Tory dirigiste? Or is he one nation? A Cameroon or ERGer? A libertarian? A big spender? A globalist? A nationalist? We have some evidence to support a bit of all of them.

There are two competing theories at work about this election from both the Tories and Labour. The latter says that the country is weary of a decade of Conservative rule, of Tory ideas, that it yearns for radical change, that it desperately wants another way of looking at the world and another world to vote for.

The Tory analysis holds that the voters think there has been quite enough change as it is, that the public wants the churn to end. In that sense, “Get Brexit Done” is more than meets the eye. It is a code. One which adverts to the idea that Johnson can not only stop Brexit but also end the upheaval, can make politics itself stop.

That the voters don’t want a political teacher but a political doctor. That is why the Tory offering is likely to be so piecemeal – to offer anything else would detract from its own message, its own medicine.

Yet the two most memorable political slogans of recent years have both been deeply political, both connected to Johnson and at least partly of his design: to “Take back control” and to “Get Brexit Done”. The question he must answer, in both cases, is to what end?

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