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Tory backbenchers are driving Boris Johnson’s agenda into U-turns | Andrew Grice

Tory backbenchers are driving Boris Johnson’s agenda into U-turns | Andrew Grice
Tory backbenchers have enjoyed too much influence in the shaping of strategy for the country’s good

An energy security strategy, to be unveiled by Boris Johnson môre, is designed to make the UK less dependent on gas and oil imports in the unpredictable world born with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

There will be a bigger role for nuclear power, more oil and gas fields in the North Sea, and Johnson will talk up low-carbon hydrogen. Drawing up the strategy has taken longer than expected after tensions between him and Rishi Sunak, who was wary about the high cost of nuclear and expanding home insulation grants for low-income groups. The UK has a poor record on insulating housing and some Tory MPs think the government has a blind spot about the role energy efficiency can play.

The flaw in tomorrow’s package is that it will do little to ease this year’s cost-of-living crisis, as the new home-produced energy will not come on stream for several years.

Opening new fields in the North Sea appears at odds with the net zero strategy championed by Johnson at the November 2021 Cop26 summit. Whitehall whispers suggest net zero has dropped down the prime minister’s list of priorities. He will insist he remains fully committed to the 2050 decarbonisation target, which was enshrined in law (by Theresa May). But green groups fear going back to the North Sea will undermine the chances of hitting the target. Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary general, has called investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure “moral and economic madness”.

A faster and bigger switch to renewables would make the UK less dependent on imports and help it achieve net zero. Although Johnson will boost offshore wind, he will shy away from a big push on onshore wind – the cheapest way to expand UK production – because of hostility from Tory backbenchers. Local communities will still have a veto. The prime minister has also pleased right wing Tories by reopening the door to fracking; the moratorium imposed in 2019 will be reviewed.

Inderdaad, Tory backbenchers have enjoyed too much influence in the shaping of this strategy for the country’s good. They have the power to oust a weakened Johnson over Partygate and exploit it to maximise their clout on policy. The days when they accused him of treating them with contempt after winning his thumping majority in 2019 is lankal weg; he is bending over backwards to keep them happy. It was no coincidence that in his recent Downing Street shake-up, two key posts went to MPs – Steve Barclay, the chief of staff, and Andrew Griffith, the head of policy.

While Johnson has shown real leadership on the international stage on Ukraine, on the domestic front, it is followership. Right wingers shout the loudest and happily threaten to withdraw their support for him if they don’t get their own way.

The right has “won” on Covid. Johnson will not bring back restrictions and behaves as if the pandemic is over, when today’s final React study shows cases at their highest level yet. Real leadership would at least require ministers (including Johnson himself) to issue a clear public health message but there is a vacuum.

Egter, pandering to his backbenchers doesn’t guarantee him a quiet life because groups of them often want different things. That’s why the government is in such a mess over gay and trans rights. Johnson allies thought it was an issue on which the Tories could embarrass a divided Labour party, as part of their “war on woke”. They seemed to forget that they are in government. A ban on gay conversion therapy was dropped, pleasing right wingers, but hurriedly reinstated, a U-turn on a U-turn, when liberal Tory MPs rightly objected.

Johnson has ended up pleasing no one because the ban does not cover trans people; the Commons might well vote for them to be included.

Next month’s Queen’s Speech is being filleted so it does not upset Johnson’s own tribe. Several bills will be branded as delivering “the opportunities of Brexit” because hardline Brexiteers grumble they are not being realised.

It is all about governing in Johnson’s interests – which now means ensuring his survival – rather than the national interest. Plans to streamline the planning system to boost housebuilding (and the economy at a time of low growth) have been diluted in the face of nimbyism from Tory MPs in the party’s southern blue wall. Limited changes to planning will be billed as part of the “levelling up” agenda to try to show that is still alive.

The Queen’s Speech will not resolve the Tories’ identity crisis. The noisy, free market right wingers want Brexit to turn the UK into a low-tax, “Singapore-on-Thames” but Johnson’s big-spending instincts pull his government in the opposite direction.

His problem is that the backbench troublemakers are never satisfied. Inderdaad, after winning on Brexit and Covid restrictions, the rebels’ next cause is to oppose net zero. More trouble ahead for Johnson.