The Conservative party is catching an unexpected virus – the fairness bug. There was always a strain of this in Tory DNA: One Nation and so-called Red Tories readily acknowledge the importance of fairness in their thinking.
But the dominant strain has been red-blooded libertarianism. Its overarching priority is freedom – from tax, from regulation, from state intrusion – which has driven Brexit, austerity and suspicion of lockdowns alike.
However, simple libertarianism has been found wanting. The prime minister may have libertarian leanings, but he is also a self-described “Brexitty Hezza” – his acute political antennae telling him from social care to the social conditions of the Midlands, North and British coast that the government must act to promote more fairness.
His and the wider party’s recent travails are rooted in trying to reconcile two irreconcilable philosophies – libertarianism and the new salience of fairness.
MPs who have won Labour Red Wall seats are one important carrier of the fairness bug for obvious reasons, but the centre of the party is not immune – not least because it too is sensitive to the new mood. What lay behind Monday’s revolt on the Health and Care Bill, and why the story is not yet over, is that the Treasury-induced changes so clearly relieve richer homeowners from care payments more than poorer pensioners.
A basic precept of fairness – that everyone should get proportional rewards, their due desert – has been trashed. The backlash might have been avoided at the peak of austerity. Not now.
Equally, what did for Owen Paterson was retrospectively trying to rewrite the rules to favour an MP who had palpably asked a disproportionate number of parliamentary questions to favour a company paying him a massive retainer.
Rewriting any process retrospectively to favour one person – or exploiting public office for private gain – offends another cardinal fairness principle: fair process must be based on universally applicable principles, of which equality is central. It is telling that all the main actors in the Paterson drama – from Charles Moore to Andrea Leadsom – came from the libertarian Brexit political right.
Chancellor Sunak is no less culpable. Yorkshire’s population is five million: to deny England’s most populous and proudest county access to HS2 while favouring Manchester – however much the £96 billion earmarked for rail investment was trumpeted as a substitute – was bound to raise the charge of unfairness. The North was united in rage.
On levelling up, Boris Johnson may be fuzzy on detail, but about the thrust he has read the runes correctly.
Fairness, as the newly launched Fairness Foundation argues (full declaration: I chair its editorial board), is founded on five “fair necessities” – respecting proportionality, promoting equal life chances (designing out unearned good or bad luck), delivering equal process, contributing to and being supported by society, and ensuring that everyone has their basic material needs met.
By those standards, as Johnson declared in his Birmingham speech, Britain does not pass the fairness test. To be born in too many parts of the North and Midlands (and indeed on Britain’s coast) is to draw an unfair short straw in terms of your life chances – affecting everything from life expectancy to holding your marriage together.
It offends, and has offended for generations, any conception of fairness. It was at the root of the Leave vote.
Johnson has backed his hunch by populating the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities with some of the Tories’ best and most effective ministerial operators, and persuading former Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane to lead the taskforce was a coup.
Their first test is the Levelling Up White Paper, expected before the end of the year, and to what degree it affirms fairness in its avowed intentions, together with any proposed processes to hold this government and its successors to account.
The battle is on for Johnson’s backing. Embracing fairness rather than trying to ride two opposing philosophies at once will be the obvious means to reset his government. The open political question is whether his libertarians will let him.
The White Paper will be a litmus test of which way he will jump or if he means to carry on riding two horses at once. It is a debate that will frame British politics for the rest of this parliament – and determine the next election.
Will Hutton is chairman of the Fairness Foundation Editorial Board