The idea that Johnson is ‘moving left’ may be Thatcher’s final victory | Andy Beckett | Opinion

Ever since Margaret Thatcher seized the Tory leadership 45 years ago, one of the few seemingly reliable facts in British politics has been that the Conservatives are aggressively rightwing on the economy. Sanctifying the free market, prioritising the wealthy, promoting competition throughout society, justifying inequality: in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, the Tories have pursued a particular, hard-nosed vision of economic life, even as they’ve softened periodically on social issues.

Yet since Boris Johnson eased into the leadership last summer, there have been louder and louder hints that a Tory economic rethink is belatedly under way – more than a decade after the financial crisis that undermined so much of their economic philosophy. There has been less talk of tax cuts and more of tax increases; an election manifesto that promised “opportunity for all” and “social justice”; an increase in the minimum wage well above the rate of inflation; the nationalisation of Northern Rail; and the possibility of state aid for other troubled but strategically important businesses.

This change of tone and, sometimes, substance has been widely seen as a shift to the left – a shift expected to be confirmed in next week’s budget. Some rightwing observers have been disconcerted. The Institute of Economic Affairs, which provided much of the intellectual basis for Thatcherism, complained that December’s Queen’s speech “focused on state intervention rather than setting out plans to make people freer”.

But to many commentators, on the left as well as the right, the Conservatives are following a clever new path, which their recent capture of so many Labour seats has both validated and made unavoidable. As the political scientist Matthew Goodwin put it, in a much-cited tweet on election night: “It is easier for the right to move left on economics.” The Tories’ reputation for ruthlessness and reinvention means they can deploy economic tools – such as nationalisation – that are much more controversial when used by Labour.

I’m not sure the Conservatives’ economic prospects are quite so rosy. As previous governments have found, changing your economic thinking is one thing; changing the British economy, unbalanced and sluggish but set in its ways, is often another. And this task will be harder still during and after the biggest, most economically disruptive public health emergency for decades. The Tories won’t be able to provide economic “opportunity for all” if millions of workers are unwilling or unable to leave the house.

But even if the party’s economic rethink ultimately disappoints, as Johnson’s big ideas usually did when he was mayor of London, the fact that so many people have taken it seriously, and seen it as a move to the left, is significant. Because in many ways it isn’t a move to the left at all.

The Conservatives have little to say about the stark and widening imbalances of power in the modern economy: between employers and employees, digital giants such as Uber and gig workers, company bosses and trade unions, the City of London and everywhere else. Reducing such imbalances would be the aim of any meaningfully left-of-centre economic policy.

Instead the idea for transforming the economy that has had the most enthusiastic support from Johnson is the establishment of minimally regulated free ports. Rather than “levelling up” Britain, as the Tories promise, such enclaves would probably make the economy still more uneven, drawing away businesses from elsewhere. And even levelling up isn’t necessarily a left-of-centre policy if it means taking resources away from, say, the large parts of London crammed with renters and the working poor and giving them to towns full of property-owning pensioners in the north.

The credulity with which the Tory move “left” has been greeted is revealing. It points to a final, little-noticed victory for Thatcherism. She shifted how Britain thinks about the economy so far and so lastingly to the right that any milder Tory economic policies are mistaken for a dramatic change of heart. In fact they’re compromises between disruptive capitalism and social stability of the sort pre-Thatcher Conservative governments frequently made when circumstances required.

From the early 1950s to the early 1970s, Tory chancellors supported full employment and income tax rates of 60% or higher for the rich. But few mistook them for leftists. They were just astute rightwing politicians responding to the fact that many voters bitterly remembered the unemployment and inequality of the interwar years – and also responding to a Labour party that, even when out of power, had lots of egalitarian economic ideas that were potentially alluring in an anti-elitist age.

Something similar may be happening now. The Labour left has been thinking hard about modern capitalism’s problems for much longer than the Tories. Many voters, including Tories, are much less sure than they used to be that the free-market country Thatcher and her party largely created will provide them with a good life. The Johnson government is reacting to these political dangers. But like all Tory governments, it will do no more to curb capitalism than it has to. If the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, wanted to go further, he would be in a different party.

In last year’s Tory manifesto, the vaguely egalitarian economic passages didn’t last long. Like one of Johnson’s apparently meandering, but actually sly, multipurpose speeches, the text quickly moves on to other political messages. “We as Conservatives want to give you freedom – low taxes, opportunity,” the manifesto declares, like a Thatcher speech from the 1980s. “We believe that free markets … can protect the planet.” Conservatives want to be seen as no longer putting economic growth before social harmony. But in most Tory hearts, the economic infatuation lives on.

Andy Beckett is a Guardian columnist

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