It’s a moment often seen in the downward trajectory of beleaguered prime ministers: a whirlwind of new policy ideas intended to please voters, but which are actually more often aimed at appeasing their own MPs. Boris Johnson is approaching, some would say, that point.
In recent days, Downing Street has come out in favor of high schools and imperial measures. The previous weeks have seen forays into other Tory comfort zones, including bashing the EU and talking about fossil fuels.
Such nostalgia politics are regularly promoted by Conservative backbenchers. But it is one of the paradoxes of Conservative party politics that the more secure a prime minister is in power, the less he has to indulge in these ideas.
One reason is obvious: a popular prime minister with broad support need not court smaller groups with niche interests. More generally, for all their in-party currency, there is not much evidence that such “red meat” policies are particularly popular with voters – at least those beyond the conservative core.
High schools are a fascinating example. Beloved by many Tory MPs, including Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Conservative backbench committee, their supporters see the massive rollout of selective education as a solution to leveling and a clear winner in the vote.
The front-page article in Monday’s Daily Telegraph, a long-time grammars advocate, said senior ministers were ‘open’ to removing the ban on new, selective state schools, but had met resistance from officials .
There’s probably a reason for the resistance from officials: decades of research showing no evidence that grammars help with social mobility, middle-class parents routinely using tutoring for Game 11+ exams while poorer children disproportionately end up in less academic schools.
Polls show they are also a hugely divisive issue, with a nearly even split between backing expanding high schools, keeping the current coeducational mix, or scrapping them altogether. Other polls show that parents are significantly less likely to support the system if they believe their child will not make the academic cut.
Hydraulic fracturing is broadly analogous in political terms: popular with usually vocal backbenchers, pushing ministers to offer political concessions, but notably harder to sell to the public.
While many voters like the idea of abundant shale gas, they are inevitably less enthusiastic if the process is happening near them. When the Guardian contacted the 138 MPs with fracking exploration licenses in their constituencies to ask if they supported local mining, only five said yes.
The imperial measures are a less contentious issue with loyal Tories, though it is largely met with a baffled shrug by everyone. It was inevitably also the Telegraph that was briefed on the idea of ’bringing back’ the imperial system, a slightly confusing notion given that the UK has for decades used a mixture of imperial and metric, depending on the circumstances. .
Addressing the idea on Monday, Johnson’s spokesman insisted that Imperial units were “universally understood”. Polls show something quite different – that most people use a mix, but the younger a person is, the more likely they are to primarily use the metric.
Suggesting policies that primarily appeal to your base vote is, of course, nothing new, but it’s only ever part of a successful political strategy.
At a recent Conservative election strategy meeting, party chairman Oliver Dowden outlined his “80/20” strategy, intended to defend 80 marginal seats already held and win 20 more. It’s a bold plan, but one that would likely require imaginative policy proposals.
And yet the bulk of recent political ideas seem to be based on what is, for Tory MPs, happy and familiar ground. None are happier and more familiar than Brexit, hence the EU’s recent attempts to challenge the Northern Ireland protocol and the long-promised “bonfire” of Brussels regulations.
Brexit arguably epitomizes Johnson’s current political stasis. He delivered the 2019 election, but opposition parties barely mention him and most voters pay little attention to him. This is yet another issue where the Conservative Party risks trying to reach out to voters only to find it is largely talking to itself.