Last summer, Boris Johnson stormed to victory in the Conservative Party leadership contest by winning over a coalition in his Party, including the hard liners – the likes of the European Research Group (ERG), who viewed him as someone who would promote their interests in a way that appealed to the masses. It was the same coalition that was bolstered in December when the Conservatives romped to victory at the General Election. But now, less than a year later, those whose support meant so much to the PM and who he paid back in spades with an 80 seat majority, are threatening to turn their backs.
Something as monumental as Covid-19 was never going to pass by without internal conflict, especially given the extreme measures the Government have had to take. The core of the dispute is that Boris and the Government appear to be more pro-restrictions, more concerned about the state of the NHS and more cautious about Covid cases, while a group of his backbenchers are starting to become frustrated by it all. They don’t like the amount of borrowing going on, they don’t like the impact of lockdown on business, and they perceive that Covid measures have been prioritised over levelling up. Johnson said he would help the North, instead he’s put much of it in the highest tier of restrictions for months on end.
This is a substantive disagreement and it will linger for years to come. But it is worth remembering that factionalism within the Conservative Party is nothing new. Nor is it unique to the Tories (see the far-left’s Socialist Campaign Group within Labour and the Lib Dem’s Orange Bookers). Under Mrs Thatcher you had the notorious ‘wets’ and ‘dries’. Post-Thatcher, you had the establishment of the ‘No Turning Back Group’, which sought (and indeed continues to seek) to keep the flame of Thatcherism alive. Under David Cameron we saw the establishment of numerous Tory MP groups, like the 301 Group, which wanted to reform the 1922 Committee, and the 2020 Group, a pro-Cameron organisation for instance.
So it should come as no surprise that new groups have emerged under Johnson. These include the Northern Research Group; the Covid Research Group; and the China Research Group, who all share a distaste for the way the Government has handled this crisis. Over time, we are witnessing the rise of the independently minded MP. Constituents are increasingly demanding MPs who are prepared to champion their local communities and stand-up against the central party machine, whatever colour that party is. Strong party whipping is in decline, rebellions are on the rise. Johnson needs to understand this and manage his party, with the understanding that they aren’t always going to back him on everything, and that is ok, as long there is some give and take, and they remain willing to stand behind him overall.
In old times, an 80 seat majority effectively meant you could do whatever you want. Now, Johnson is not a King. He needs to carefully monitor factions as they emerge, and make sure he does enough to keep them onside.