Boris Johnson surfaced on Tuesday to give his first wide-ranging interview since the election. The prime minister gave little away. But clearly visible is his political project to raise issues that identify the Conservatives with the workers and the smaller towns and distance them from liberal thinking in the big cities. The Tories’ response to the potential collapse of the Exeter-based airline Flybe is instructive. First it was suggested that air passenger taxes on domestic flights could be cut. This is a calculated appeal to people’s wallets with cheaper flights. But it is also a surefire way to rile liberals who rightly question the wisdom of encouraging flying when the planet is burning.

The same political trick was attempted on the issue of county lines drugs gangs which Mr Johnson, in a naked attempt to earn tabloid applause, said needed to be “wound up”. This taps into the social conservatism of small-town Britain while simultaneously being a provocation to the liberal sense that drugs are a problem for larger society, not just the criminal justice system. Mr Johnson hopes to trade in issues that pose dilemmas for liberals but seem clearcut to ordinary voters. Such a political strategy was born in Mr Johnson’s 2016 Brexit campaign that successfully ghettoised well-off and well-educated voters as out-of-touch in their urban citadels.

This politics rests on the increasing salience of class. It is perhaps a liberal conceit to suggest that class has vanished from modern societies which claim to be purely meritocratic, with the only barriers to upward mobility being the overt and institutionalised forms of discrimination. Mr Johnson understood that the liberal failure to acknowledge social class’s re-emergence in politics left it nothing to attribute Brexit populism to but bigotry, irrationality or foreign interference. All played a part, but Mr Johnson aligned Brexit with a promise of national renewal to win the 2016 referendum with a coalition of wealthy southern and left-behind voters. He then repeated the trick by putting that result at the heart of the last election – and won by being more popular with working-class voters than middle-class ones.

It is one thing to change the rhetoric, but can Mr Johnson change the Conservative party’s DNA? This would require a much more decisive break with the pro-market, balanced-budget policies embraced by the Tories since 1979. Rightwing economic policies do not have much appeal to those whose support they need. Mr Johnson’s government is willing to talk the talk – threatening to nationalise poorly performing train franchises. But he has not yet walked the walk. The Tories have about £40bn of investment to “level up” the UK’s lagging regions. However, with the economy shrinking and confidence wilting, Mr Johnson needs a much more ambitious fiscal policy for a promised “decade of renewal” to materialise.

There is a lesson for Labour. From the 1960s to the 1980s, working-class voters were almost as likely to vote as their middle-class counterparts. From the 2000s, a gap began to open, with the working class staying at home. This was partly reversed by the Brexit plebiscite, in which it was fraudulently claimed that money would flow into the NHS rather than the European Union. Class voting reappeared with a clear divide. There is a yearning for social equality, economic redistribution and less privatisation. It is a sign of his divide-and-rule policy that Mr Johnson has no plan to promote compromise among class interests. Whoever understands that such tensions can only be resolved by what JK Galbraith called “countervailing power” will reap the political rewards.


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