While special advisor Dominic Cummings’ likely breach of lockdown rules has done some damage to the reputation of the government, there is no doubt that Boris Johnson’s reluctance to sack him is a calculated, beneficial move for the country in the long term. And if they deliver, then Cummings can be forgiven.
The duo have been able to redefine British politics and the Conservative Party, pushing the Tories leftwards in many policy aspects. The economic commitments of the government prove to be the most impactful of these moves, best seen in their response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition, Cummings and Johnson have long held a political vision that has never strayed far off the centre.
Cummings has wanted to invest emphatically in traditionally neglected regions of the UK while Johnson is seen as residing on the left of the Conservatives, particularly in terms of social values. The move also comes at an ideal time when Labour continue to be stuck in the unelectable mud of the left-wing, and the Lib Dems struggle to rebrand themselves as a credible alternative that transcends the single issue of Brexit. The result is that the Conservatives can now consolidate their position as the most credible party in British politics and in the centre-ground, aided undeniably by the Cummings and Johnson double act.
A left-field covid-19 response
There is no doubt that the covid-19 pandemic has required an unprecedented response from the government in unprecedented times, and both Johnson and Cummings have been quick and pragmatic in their economic reaction. In the most recent budget prior to the crisis, the Conservative government were expecting to borrow around £55bn for the financial year (April 2020-April 2021). However, the Office for Budget Responsibility now puts the predicted amount at £298bn — an amount previously unthinkable for Conservative governments to willingly spend; defying all typical preferences for fiscal control, limited state intervention, and decreasing the deficit. Yet, there is a clear will in Johnson and his chancellor Rishi Sunak to intervene heavily in order to limit the potentially huge socio-economic ramifications of the virus. As such, much of the OBR spending predictions derive from the government’s recent commitments to funding the furlough scheme until October, providing grants and loans to small businesses, and committing further spending to bolster health services across the country
With the centre ground typically characterised as a political home where parties share aspects of left and right ideology, Boris Johnson has clearly moved the Conservatives economically leftwards in order to tackle the coronavirus. He has done so, arguably, in defiance of the general Conservative position of rigid refrain and its adherence to the principles of classical economic management, grounded on fears of ‘socialist’ state interference.
The pandemic has provided the impetus for a refreshed, responsive kind of Conservative Party that spends on infrastructure, welfare and opportunity in the centre-ground. In doing so, the governmental strategists have prioritised the vital protection of incomes and jobs for when restrictions are lifted, and utilised the tools of the state to ensure that people do not fall through the safety net. The interventionist approach to Covid-19 thus reflects the Conservative shift away from the Right, placing it neatly at the centre ground of the current political system.
The long-term vision of change
Yet, it is also extremely likely that even without the pandemic, the Johnson-Cummings political agenda involved moving towards the centre anyway. David Gauke, a former Tory MP and cabinet member under Theresa May, highlighted the similarities between Johnson’s fiscal spending plans and the Blair-Brown spending of New Labour back in December, after the election. Indeed, Johnson’s manifesto — choreographed by Cummings — included increased spending on the NHS and ‘millions more invested every week in science, schools, apprenticeships and infrastructure’. This agenda of opportunity and social justice somewhat mirrors the electoral success of the ‘Third Way’ back in 1997. The manifesto spending pledges proved to be an extra incentive for traditional Labour heartlands to turn blue during the election, with Brexit also being a decisive issue. In addition, Cummings has been long known to resent the ‘Westminster elites’ that have continued to neglect ordinary people. It is not therefore far-fetched to suggest that the Tories’ electoral campaign and subsequent governance has shown a desire to redistribute.
The nationalisation of the extremely inefficient Northern Rail in January 2020 is testament to the Tories’ ambitious but credible Third Way. The message of redistributive funding from the government is compelling, with regional investment and bolstering transport links likely to occur in a way that previous governments have failed to commit to. The unflinching sacking of former chancellor Sajid David further affirms this aim. Cummings ultimately masterminded the move as David’s ideological conviction to frugally manage resources and reduce the deficit simply did not comply with the spending ambitions of Johnson’s inner circle. The commitment to investment to better the country was real before Covid-19, and this will not change in the next few years.
Weakness of the other parties
And quite simply, the timing could not be any strategically better for Johnson. Having won by a large majority in the general election, aided in part by the incompetence of Labour and the Lib Dems, this has given him the time and leeway to implement policies that confidently pitch the Conservative Party’s tent in the middle of British politics. While Keir Starmer aims to build the credibility of the Labour Party once more, he finds himself ideologically bound by the National Executive Committee to many of the socialist policies Corbyn brought in — and many of which were campaigned for when he lost the last two elections. The party will continue to squabble.
In addition, the unsuccessful rebranding of the Lib Dems as a single-issue, pro-Europe party coupled with bolder spending plans than usual has also pushed them away from the centre. Thus, the Tories have positioned themselves expertly to attract a large section of moderate voters that could remain unconvinced by Labour and the Lib Dems’ credibility, thereby maintaining their right-wing support in the absence of a political alternative.
Both Johnson and Cummings have expertly manoeuvred around ideological convictions to produce a bold set of plans for spending that makes the Conservative Party the much-needed moderate option in the British political system. If they manage to navigate the United Kingdom through the coronavirus pandemic and guide the economy to some recovery while maintaining ambitious spending commitments, Cummings should earn forgiveness for the breaching of lockdown rules — and be recognised as a key cog in the best way forward.