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Boris and Sajid prove the power of embracing true conservatism

Boris Johnson
Here are politicians with some actual vision, after 14 years of triangulating semi-Toryism Credit: Bob cartoons

We may at last get a PM who refuses to kowtow to the Left

How refreshing: finally, some Conservatives who unapologetically believe in actual conservatism, who proudly stand for free-market economics, the protection of citizens’ lives and property, and the right of taxpayers to keep more of their own money. Even more remarkably, these are not just any Tory backbench no-hopers, but both of the contenders for the top job who launched their campaigns yesterday: Boris Johnson, who is now on course for a stunning victory, and Sajid Javid. Dominic Raab is also on the same wavelength.

All three support self-government; all three believe their brands of popular conservatism to be not just right but also electorally potent: implementing real Tory principles that can defeat Jeremy Corbyn and see off Nigel Farage. There is no need to pretend not to be a Tory or to bash the rich. They want to serve their own voters, and expand their number: they want to convince, sell and convert, rather than cower or run away. They won’t allow the spreadsheet Left 
and its obsession with redistribution to dictate their agenda, or to determine what is just and desirable.

  • Read Allister Heath's latest column on telegraph.co.uk every Wednesday night from 9.30pm  

After 14 years of triangulating, embarrassed, timid semi-Toryism, delivered by people who didn’t believe in anything other than themselves, this is heady stuff. Contrary to popular opinion, the leadership race is working: we are seeing a battle not just of specific policy ideas but also of the full range of possible Tory visions.

In addition to the trio of popular conservatives, there are the managerialists (Jeremy Hunt and Matt Hancock), radicals (Michael Gove), blue collar Tories (Esther McVey and possibly Andrea Leadsom) and patricians (Rory Stewart). Every attitude to the EU has featured, with Sam Gyimah, who has pulled out, the sole Remainer, and McVey supporting a no deal as her preferred option.

When it comes to business, there is a three-way clash between corporatists (who want to cut tax on big firms rather than individuals), interventionists (who want to 
direct business) and (relative) 
 free-marketeers. The sole outright classical liberal/libertarian, Liz Truss, didn’t stand in the end, but she lives on in spirit in the Boris campaign.

This takes us to the most exciting development: popular conservatism, in abeyance during the Cameron years and comatose during Theresa May’s deadly reign, has made a striking return. There is at least now a chance, a possibility perhaps, that the UK could be on the cusp of a new wave of optimistic, Neo-Reaganite, liberal yet patriotic Toryism.

It won’t be pure Thatcherism, unfortunately, but it will share most of its characteristics. It will contain more statism and top-down (rather than bottom-up) greenery than I would like. But it will be miles better than anything on offer in any other Western democracy, including even Australia.

Take Johnson: he wants massive Eighties-style income tax cuts for 40p taxpayers, pushing up the threshold at which the rate kicks in to £80,000. He is unafraid to promise to reward a core part of his party’s base while telling the aspiring classes that they too would benefit from much lower taxes as and when their incomes rise.

His mission is to restore Nigel Lawson’s income tax settlement: in 1988, when the then chancellor slashed the top rate from 60p to 40p, it affected around 5 per cent of taxpayers. Today, around 14 per cent pay it on incomes above £50,000: to return to Lawson’s top 5 per cent of the population, the threshold would have to be set at £81,000, almost exactly what Boris wants to do. Javid would also abolish the 45p tax rate; I suspect Boris would eventually do the same. Other taxes would go, heralding a new supply-side revolution.

There are technical issues with Boris’s pledge: national insurance thresholds would rise, making the tax cuts a lot less generous than Lawson’s. This would help pensioners, as they don’t pay NICs; presumably this is an added bonus for Boris. Because of devolution, the Scottish Government could refuse to cut income tax, which means that Scots taxpayers could be hammered by the extra NIC (which isn’t currently devolved).

But for every problem there is a solution: the NIC hike in Scotland could be made only to apply if income tax thresholds rise as in England and Wales. The reality is that whoever wins should commission a root and branch investigation into the tax code. But time is scarce, and what counts is the direction of travel.

Boris wants Labour to describe those on £50-£60,000 as “rich”: this will wind up not just the top 20 per cent of the income distribution but also those earning anything above £30,000 who would love to earn more. This is how he hopes to appeal to Remain-voting professionals: swallow leaving the EU, he will say, but in return your taxes would be cut a lot, whereas they would explode under Labour. Boris is trying to disprove the claim that all politics is now about culture and identity.

Javid’s approach is to leverage his rags to riches tale to make the point that, with the right reforms, our society can once again become a social escalator. His inspirational campaign video is a paean to family values, hard work, education and the importance of global capitalism. It beautifully showcases how immigration can help build a strong, coherent, patriotic British society; a vignette at the start of the video shows how his family likes Marmite as well as samosas.

Javid is proud to embody a central Tory value: aspiration, the desire to better oneself through one’s own efforts. The welfare state should be a hand-up, not a hand-down; the tax system should raise the necessary funds efficiently but not discourage economic growth. The Tory mission is to boost opportunities to propel as many people upwards as possible. Javid understands poverty: unlike many rich Lefties, he doesn’t romanticise it. He grasps all too well the reality of poor schools, sink estates, crime and chaos, and he is on the side of those who want to progress.

Conservatives always lose when they start to apologise or downplay the central beliefs of their tribe. Self-doubt and self-censorship are lethal in politics: you either believe in your own story, or you don’t. Boris gets it, as do Javid, Raab and some of the other candidates. Let’s hope the parliamentary party does, too.

  • Read Allister Heath's latest column on telegraph.co.uk every Wednesday night from 9.30pm