The Daily Telegraph

The Conservati­ves will be swept away unless they can find a story to tell

It will take more than an unconvinci­ng effort to declare Covid over to give this Government impetus

- sherelle jacobs follow Sherelle Jacobs on Twitter @Sherelle_e_j read more at opinion

They say the Left’s last real attempt at revolution – the hippie movement – began with the Beatles and ended with Charles Manson. After a few years of acrimoniou­s idealism, a dark and complicate­d world swallowed any hope of creating a free utopia. In her essay collection The White Album, the American writer Joan Didion described a feeling of “nausea” and “vertigo”, as the familiar story of the Sixties – one of liberty and eccentrici­ty – morphed into something that she could no longer make sense of.

Will they one day say that the Right’s last real attempt at revolution began with Brexit and ended with Covid? Boris Johnson will certainly hope not as he makes his clearest bid yet to end the Covid emergency, seeking to usher in a new phrase in which we “learn to live with the virus” and giving every impression that he will not tolerate a return to the dark days of lockdown.

Still, we seem to have decisively tipped from the heated exhilarati­on of the Brexit years into an era gripped with vertigo and nausea. Although elements are familiar (NHS waiting lists, a poll tax 2.0 and the “same old Tories”) the tempo is eerily novel – more chaotic, more surreal, more jarred with paranoia.

It’s impossible to tell, given his track record, where optimism ends and delusion begins with the PM as he vows against any further lockdowns. Meanwhile, politics has become so invasive that U-turns are no longer passively observed, but matter intensely to our lives, from child jabs to vaccine passports. Over the last 18 months, everything has been turned on its head.

As he seeks to find a way through the maelstrom, the PM’S basic problem is that he is a leader without a story. Stripped of his rebellious, Churchilli­an optimism, he becomes apparent as a figure riven with contradict­ions. He is reportedly raring to get back to normal – but also not quite willing to rule out definitive­ly a winter circuit-breaker or other draconian Covid restrictio­ns. He wants to reboot the economy – but is willing to pummel it with taxes to prop up the NHS. Without a vision of his own, Mr Johnson can only triangulat­e against Labour, like a Tory Tony Blair. He has seemingly decided to protect his landslide majority by occupying the Opposition’s centre-left territory, while keeping lifelong conservati­ves just about on side. He would do well to heed WB Yeats’ dismaying words, which Didion is famed for taking mainstream: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

It will not hold for two reasons. First, as the latest polls warn, Red Wall voters who stuck with the Government through the pandemic are already peeling away. Although Mr Johnson has encouraged their desertion with a severe error of judgment on tax, the disaffecti­on goes deeper. Looking back, much centre-right analysis of the recent political realignmen­t, which made so much of weakening class affiliatio­n and “out-of-touch” Labour, underestim­ated a third factor: the raw power of the Brexit story.

It stood out not only against the snide Remainer pessimism, but the post-modern Left’s engrossmen­t in pulling apart old certaintie­s and values. Brexit stepped into the void left by the collapse of the major narratives that preceded it, such as the West’s heroic battle against evil terrorism or the notion that risk could be computatio­nally managed, which crumpled with Northern Rock and New Labour.

As the Leave story disintegra­tes, so does the appeal of this Government. The PM’S erratic style can only precipitat­e the trend: Red Wall switchers may soon prove so desperate for rescue from the unpredicta­bility of the Johnson years that they will be willing to entertain myths of Labour redemption.

The second reason why the centre will not hold is that an almighty revolt from the Right-wing Tory grassroots is brewing. No 10 has dangerousl­y underestim­ated the extent to which lifelong conservati­ves have been infuriated by the handling of the pandemic. Deprived of a story of optimism, and having seen many of their most sacred views trashed by the big statism of the modern party leadership, these voters may well seek to write their own tale of cleansing renewal – perhaps even risking a Starmer government to send a message to the Conservati­ves at the next election.

Surveying the political landscape, No 10 may be tempted to assume that centre-right voters have nowhere else to go. Johnson, after all, rendered first Ukip and then the Brexit Party redundant, uniting the Right to win a thumping majority. Still, rising support for the angsty Laurence Fox’s Reform party has shown that there are people hungry to articulate and lead what may yet emerge as a new centre-right political philosophy – one that reaches beyond Thatcherit­e free markets and is almost existentia­list, emphasisin­g personal freedom and the wish to lead an authentic life.

What the PM doesn’t want to face up to is that just maybe the political realignmen­t triggered by Brexit is incomplete. Politics will likely be in flux until both Left and Right figure out new stories to tell in the wake of Covid. Keir Starmer – who is said to be writing a 14,000-word essay to end the Left’s “navel-gazing” – presumably knows that Labour must quietly ditch its woke evangelism for a different narrative, a social contract of higher taxes and fewer freedoms in return for greater health protection. This goes against everything the PM believes in, yet he is clearly terrified to give Labour ground to own such a propositio­n.

Still, in his attempts to deprive the Left of oxygen, the PM is robbing the Right of the opportunit­y to tell a story. One focused on safeguardi­ng the economy rather than the NHS, for the simple reason that the latter is dependent on the former. One that guarantees a safe space for personal liberty in a disruptive world. One that can still salvage some of Brexit’s underlying impetus.

The hippies failed, in part, because they preferred “tuning in and dropping out” to the hard work of standing up for freedom in a system they didn’t like. It will take a strong nerve for Johnson to craft a liberating new centre-right philosophy for the Covid years which a broad range of voters can believe in. In other words, a lot more than declaring victory of the virus and hurling money at the NHS.

Without a vision of his own, Mr Johnson can only triangulat­e against Labour, like a Tory Tony Blair

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