A year on from giving Boris Johnson his majority, voters in constituencies like Dudley and Workington have little, so far, to show for it. Yes, Britain will soon be out of the transition phase as we leave the European Union. And yes, as Covid struck the economy, Rishi Sunak’s business support and furlough schemes have kept companies and families afloat.
But the much-vaunted points-based immigration system will almost certainly fail to reduce the number of people coming to Britain. There is little sign of the new industrial strategy that will bring growth to the regions, no trace of the decentralisation proposals to put power in the hands of local communities, and no confidence that we will see the decisive shift needed to fund the technical education and training programmes the country so badly needs.
And things will get tougher still. A year ago, it was possible to imagine the Tories borrowing more to fund regional infrastructure spending. It was possible even to imagine them funding the increases in day-to-day spending made necessary by the promise to “level up” the country. But now Covid has blown a hole in the public finances, that intent is in doubt.
It was always the case that the durability of the new coalition of Tory support would be tested not during periods of political peace but when hard choices had to be made. And sure enough, ministers and advisers have been arguing for some time about whether Covid’s fiscal impact means they must retreat from the promises they made to their new voters. This would be a terrible mistake.
If Boris Johnson wants to govern for the whole country – the true meaning, incidentally, of the One Nation tradition – he has to stick with the provinces. And if he wants his electoral coalition to hold together, he needs to show – now more than ever, when the chips are down – that he puts ordinary working families with modest means first. If that later requires asking more of the privileged and the prosperous, then so be it, and in fact so much the better, because it will show at the toughest moments the Prime Minister refused to retreat to a Tory comfort zone.
Even if the Respectables fail to drag the Government all the way back to such a zone, the danger is that they bring about a confused and contradictory halfway house. It is not difficult to imagine the Tories telling the country that certain spending on infrastructure and services is unaffordable, for example, while keeping, against the wishes of the Chancellor, the international aid target. It is just as easy to imagine ministers making promises to keep a lid on the cost of living and to revive British industry, while pursuing climate change policies that make both family and industrial energy costs unaffordable.
And does anybody really believe that for the prosperous and liberal voters motivated by issues like international aid, the Conservatives are likely – after Brexit and the rejuvenation of Labour under Sir Keir Starmer – to become the Respectables? No. The Tories’ surest route to future success is to become the Dependables. If you do not wish to take my word for it, imagine what Keir Starmer would prefer: a Tory party that holds the old Red Wall is a party he cannot defeat.