Is it time to be canvassing for the next leader to take up the conservative banner? Americans are already maneuvering over who will carry the GOP banner in the next presidential contest in 2024. The query is no less pertinent to members of the Conservative Party in Great Britain. The London Sun reports that top Tories led by Brexit “Spartan” Steve Baker are warning that “Boris Johnson’s days in Downing Street are numbered unless he gives a clear path out of lockdown soon.”
“Government has adopted a strategy devoid of any commitment to liberty without any clarification about when our most basic freedoms will be restored, and with no guarantee that they will never be taken away again,” the Sun quotes a confidential document from Mr. Baker, that is making the rounds within the parliamentary party.
Provocative, no? And perhaps precipitate: given that Mr. Johnson is barely one year into his term as Prime Minister. Not that the suggestion is groundless.
Last summer, the father-in-law of Dominic Cummings, Mr. Johnson’s former chief adviser, suggested that, weakened by his own bout with Covid-19, he would “stand down in six months.” Bringing Brexit successfully across the finishing line was the goal, as well as ensuring BoJo’s entry into the Conservative pantheon.
Now that Britain enters a new relationship with the European Union — still fraught with uncertainty with respect to Britain’s determination to stare down Brussels — has Mr. Johnson’s political usefulness come to an end?
Conservatives concerned about liberty might well conclude that it has. For when efforts to combat the coronavirus entail shutting down much of the country, where is the commitment to liberty? When the State assumes much of the responsibility for those it has furloughed, where are the principles of limited government?
Higher taxes and reduced social services to address the trillions of pounds added to the national debt will run up against the realities of Laffer Curve economics. Whitehall will be tempted to tighten its grip on economic freedom before it ever relents to give entrepreneurs back the motivation to push toward prosperity.
So, fresh from Brexit success, Mr. Johnson would do himself and his party a favor to plan his departure. A recent poll conducted for the Observer suggests as much, with Conservative fortunes beginning to ebb against Labor led by Sir Keir Starmer. Labor leads the Conservatives by one point, 40% to 39%.
Forty-three percent of respondents want Mr. Johnson to step down, with 40% signalling him to remain at Downing Street. His political adversary enjoys better general support, with 52% content with Sir Keir’s performance, against 20% discontentment.
Paradoxically, one poll finding should disconcert Conservatives for freedom. With 87% of Tories happy with the Prime Minister’s performance, the government continues to enjoy overwhelming support from its base. “In the country, opposition to lockdown is a marginal pursuit,” confirms the populist website ConservativeHome.
Before setting out to select a new leader, then, Tories who rally to the cry of “maximal freedom and minimal government” must first “re-convert” Conservative faithful to these principles. Otherwise, with the membership enthralled to statist measures, there will be little relief from the mismanagement of Mr. Johnson’s prime ministry.
Unsurprisingly, the dilemma was long ago discerned by Benjamin Disraeli. “When you try to settle any great question,” he advised, “let your plan be founded upon some principle,” adding “but that is not enough.” No less important, “let it also be a principle that is in harmony with the manners and customs of the people you are attempting to legislate for.”
Such is the challenge that lies before British conservatives. In the fight of principle over pragmatism, one school argues that not since the days of Margaret Thatcher have Tories and Britain been so wisely led. Other schools, no less conservative and principled, fault even those halcyon days as illusions of strength.
Through overconfidence or political failing, Mrs. Thatcher privileged laissez-faire doctrine over traditions of cultural and institutional independence, without which economic liberalism, in the classical sense, is impossible. Only a strong hand at the helm can steer away from the shoals of curtailed civil rights and a “command” economy.
This is not a plea for an authoritarian leader to assume the reins of conservative politics. It is but a reminder of the inexorable path progressivism plots toward totalitarianism. For as F.A. Hayek warned, “the democratic statesman who sets out to plan economic life will soon be confronted with the alternative of either assuming dictatorial powers or abandoning his plans.”
Leftists, to their credit, know how to play the long game. Still, who among the right, searching for Conservative leaders as steadfast in their convictions as Mrs. Thatcher had been, cannot sympathize with Mark Antony’s lament? “Here was a Caesar! When comes such another?”