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Tories are saying they voted for Boris and got Corbyn. Yes, really.

When Boris Johnson was won a near landslide majority in December, he was hailed as nothing less than a blue messiah.  How long ago that seems. Tory commentators and many MPs are now deeply disenchanted with Boris, and not just because his government made an even worse cock-up of the exams than the Scots. 

Tory MPs hoped that Boris would be tough on immigration, would cut taxes and rein back bureaucracy, while tackling political correctness and the nanny state. What they got was a bicycling PM who seems to be tough on motorists not illegals. He has adopted what the fulminating Spectator columnist Christopher Snowden, called “purse-lipped, micro-managing, finger-wagging, lemon-sucking, censorious, anti-business, killjoy policies”. He meant the health campaigns on obesity and sugar.

Not in their wildest dreams did true blue Tories expect their chosen one to increase public spending by more than any Labour government since 1945. Yet, this government is currently paying the wages of half the working population through furlough, benefits and public sector employment. UK debt is now £2 trillion. 

Boris hasn’t even delivered on scrapping HS2, the fast rail line that most Tory MPs think is a white elephant. Instead, he is fantasising about building bridges between Scotland and Northern Ireland. Yet that is not going to keep the Union together. Johnson’s Brexit deal, it is now clear, has created a gulf between the UK and Northern Ireland.

The province has remained in regulatory alignment with the European Union’s single market, which means that there must be the very border checks the PM promised would never happen. Worse, it has handed the SNP a genuine grievance: Scotland being denied access to markets with which Northern Ireland can trade seamlessly.

Now that negotiations have resumed over the withdrawal agreement with the European Union, Brexiteer Tory MPs, like Iain Duncan Smith, fully expect a sell out. They think Mr Johnson is preparing to accept a whole range of EU regulations even after we have left. This means no trade deals with free market America, no state aid to key industries, no low tax havens and a “betrayal” of fishing. 

Tories are appalled by Johnson’s lack of urgency on Scotland as support for independence grows. The former Tory leader, William Hague, said recently that if the PM doesn’t get his act together the UK “will be finished within five years”. Tories like Hague think he allowed Nicola Sturgeon to play politics with Coronavirus.

What they didn’t anticipate was the cack-handed and contradictory approach taken by the UK government. At first, the lockdown seemed to appeal to the British wartime spirit, which always goes down well on the Right.  But far from winning a victory over this viral enemy, Britain has recorded the worst excess death rate in Europe and now the deepest recession.

Most Conservatives loath the imposition of masks, which the Daily Mail commentator, Peter Hitchens, calls “muzzles”, and which libertarians think are pointless impediments. Many Tory voters spend their holidays in France and were furious about cutting them short,  even from regions of France where Covid is almost non-existent.

Yet this Conservative government kept Britain’s airports open during the worst phase of the pandemic, allowing 18 million travellers to come to Britain largely unchecked, including a number from Covid hot spots like Italy and China. And don’t even mention track and trace.

The exams debacle was the final straw. Tory MPs wanted the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson’s head on a plate for his chaotic U-turn, but the real criticism is of the Prime Minister. He should surely have seen this coming after the chaos in Scotland.

It seems to many as if Boris Johnson isn’t really in charge. His presentation has been lamentable, and even is greatest fans are disappointed with his bumbling delivery and lack of grip. He was never a detail man, and everyone knew he flew by the seat of his pants – that’s when he managed to keep them on.

But Tories are pretty forgiving of politicians who think like they do – have the same instincts on nation and values. What is especially damaging is a growing sense that Boris is just not really a Conservative at all.

They expected him to take a tough line with the statue topplers and culture warriors of Black Lives Matters. But instead of banging heads, he avoided confrontation and made only a routine condemnation of vandalism. He allowed Winston Churchill himself to be boxed up in Parliament Square. How could it come to this? 

Part of the problem, I think, is that many Conservatives believed what Labour said about Boris – that he was a bit of a racist, misogynist, homophobic right-winger. “The most right-wing prime minister in British history”, as Labour’s John Mc Donnell called him. But colourful phrases about Burqa-wearers looking like letter boxes does not a white supremacist make.

When he was London mayor, Boris was careful to keep the black and ethnic community onside and he used to lead LGBT marches wearing a pink stetson. When he became PM he installed more BAME ministers than all previous UK governments combined.

You wont hear Boris Johnson using Daily Mail rhetoric about immigrants, he genuinely believes in state intervention and he is quietly a bit of a Europhile. Far from being a free market ideologue, Boris Johnson is a liberal, patrician Tory – more like Michael Heseltine, Brexit aside, than Margaret Thatcher.

The final insult was this Tory Prime Minister ennobling Claire Fox, a former Revolutionary Communist who used to support the objectives of the IRA. Whatever next?  As the Tory commentator, Brian Monteith put it, many Conservatives now feel that they “voted Boris and got Corbyn”.

(A version of this column appeared in The Herald).

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?

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