Lesley Riddoch: Boris Johnsons’ conversion has the sincerity of a Donald Trump tweet

Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: Alastair Grant/PA Wire
Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: Alastair Grant/PA Wire
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Boris Johnson has proclaimed himself a One Nation Tory, who will govern like a “Brexity Heseltine,” presumably intervening “morning, noon and night” to help folk hammered by Brexit.

And, to prove his bona fides, the old Etonian’s come to the rescue of the poor with a promise to end the Tory benefits freeze in April 2020. Wow.

And he’ll protect free TV licences for the over-75s. Hooray.

And he’ll cut taxes for low-paid workers. Astonishing.

And raise the state pension (but you might have to work till you’re 80 first).

Is Boris serious?

Will any of these giveaways actually materialise if he’s returned with a working majority?

Or is the whole bitty programme so vague and nakedly driven by fear of Labour’s popular policies that you’d think Jeremy Corbyn’s support had grown six percentage points last week, or something?

Whatever the motivation, Boris Johnson clearly hopes that cash-strapped, working class, gig-economy, Leave voters, will hear his policy dog-whistles as clearly as they heard Labour’s living wage and rail renationalisation plans in 2017. Combined with a relatively clear path to the next stage of Brexit, the Tory leader is convinced that his spending pledges will prompt north of England voters to shed the acquired class antipathy of generations and vote for the toff with special access to the Magic Money Tree.

That’s the big idea. But will anyone fall for it?

Tarzan himself hasn’t. Michael Heseltine wrote recently; “I fear any traces of liberal conservatism that still exist within the Prime Minister have been captured by the right-wing, foreigner-bashing, inward-looking view of the world that characterises his fellow Brexiters inside the Downing Street bunker. It’s simply not possible to be a ‘one nation’ Conservative and pursue a ‘Little Englander’ strategy crafted to appeal to the likes of Nigel Farage.”

Nonetheless, Boris is clearly determined to try, and Will Tanner – a senior adviser to Theresa May – insists the new emphasis on welfarism arises from demographic change within the Tory Party, not naked opportunism; “Post 2017, the Conservatives have more working-class members, non-university-educated voters and represent more non-traditional Tory seats. If they win this time, the types of voters the Conservatives bring together [will create] a very different kind of party, which isn’t a liberal metropolitan party, but much more rooted in working class voters and concerns.”

Tanner told Radio 4’s World this Weekend that the new intake has helped shift Conservative policy towards protection and security and away from the liberalisation of Labour and Tory predecessors. Does that amount to a modern version of Disraeli’s One Nation Conservatism? Well, it’s as good as you’re going to get.

If you judge a man by the company he keeps, however, the Prime Minister’s One Nation credentials fall at the first hurdle. His Home Secretary is the unnerving Priti Patel, who advocated the return of capital punishment in 2011, threatened the Irish with food shortages if they “hampered” Brexit, opposed gay marriage and lobbied for the tobacco and alcohol industries. Nice. Let’s not forget Chancellor Sajid Javid, so devoted to the politics of Margaret Thatcher her portrait hangs in his office. Dominic Raab, whose co-authored book Britannia Unchained described British workers as “among the worst idlers in the world”. Or business secretary Andrea Leadsom, who believes Jane Austen is the world’s greatest living author.

As former Tory MP Nick Boles observed; “Thatcherites, libertarians and No Deal Brexiters control the Conservative Party from top to bottom. Liberal One Nation Conservatives have been ruthlessly culled. Only a few neutered captives are being kept on as window dressing.”

Quite. Voters have memories.

We know Boris Johnson’s cabinet was hand-picked from those careerists desperate enough to back delivering Brexit, “come what may”, on 31 October. No caring credentials needed. Of course, dying in a ditch didn’t come off. But hey. Bygones. Boris wants to move on.

Squillions will now be spent on new hospitals, roads, schools and other projects – a change of direction some attribute to Dominic Cummings, the Number Ten special adviser who makes the fictional Malcolm Tucker sound like Shirley Temple. Apparently, Cummings told Johnson that “people are hurting”, and if the Conservatives are to pick up seats in northern Leave constituencies, they must help the working poor.

So is this just a desperate attempt to look a bit less nasty? Can frequently re-announced public spending announcements possibly compensate for a decade of austerity and the stress, brutality and misery of the bedroom tax, benefit sanctions and universal credit?

Boris Johnsons’ sudden conversion to the little people’s pain has all the sincerity of a Donald Trump tweet – calculated, cynical and completely opportunistic.

The big snag is that voters know the Tories created the social problems Boris nobly promises to slightly fix – a bit like those businesses in Britain’s de-regulated free-for-all who hoodwinked customers, then apologised sweetly when caught and (slightly) fined. Whoops – did we really sell you a PPI when it wasn’t necessary? How did that happen? Whoops – did we really raise your premium because you’re an existing customer? So sorry. Whoops, did Universal Credit delays really force you to sell yourself on the streets for income? Really?

Boris speaks as if the cruel systems that presently govern so many lives sprang up unbidden, as if harsh benefits regimes invented themselves and unintended consequences were impossible to anticipate – or act upon – or stop.

Jodey Whiting, aged 42, had several mental and physical health issues which included curvature of the spine and a brain cyst, but was told by benefits assessors she was “fit for work” after missing an assessment. Her benefits were stopped as a sanction and Ms Whiting, was left to bring up her family with no income, which added to her mental health issues and created a state of despair. She continued to receive letters rather than back-payments from the DWP, and eventually committed suicide in 2017. There are thousands of similar, desperate stories as UN rapporteur Philip Alston has illustrated.

So, I doubt there’s been a philosophical sea-change in the Tory party.

We are simply witnessing a cynical bid to outdo Labour in England and the SNP in Scotland – where hundreds of millions are spent every year mitigating the cruel Conservative benefits regime.

One Nation Boris? Good luck with that.