A Tory prime minister facing questions over whether he still believes in free market capitalism one month into office is truly a rare thing.
But Boris Johnson’s decision to rescue airline Flybe from the brink of collapse has prompted just that, as well as causing fury in the industry and raising eyebrows across Westminster.
“It shouldn’t come as a shock to you,” a No.10 source said, as reporters questioned whether Johnson was living up to his billing as a “Brexity Hezza” – a reference to interventionist ex-cabinet minister Lord Heseltine.
And Tory insiders across the board have told HuffPost UK that the decision to bail out an ailing company in the name of protecting regional connectivity very much sets down a marker for how the Johnson government, with Dominic Cummings pulling the strings, will operate.
Downing Street pointed to Johnson’s mission to “level up” the UK by boosting the regions through infrastructure investment, having won an 80-seat majority by taking seats traditionally starved for investment.
The move follows the trend set by one of the party northern “blue wall” trailblazers, Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen, who saved the local airport by nationalising it, in an ideologically surprising move for a Tory leader.
But it is one that is paying dividends for Houchen’s constituents, many of whom are first time Tory voters.
The thinking behind Johnson’s decision on Flybe was similar – to save regional routes between places like Belfast, Newcastle, Newquay, Aberdeen, Exeter, Cardiff and Birmingham, used by eight million people a year that would have disappeared had the airline gone bust.
“The PM is concerned about infrastructure and regional connectivity. He has set that out many times and I think that is the very clear reason why [the government helped Flybe],” the No.10 source said.
And Houchen himself said: “Once these critical air links are gone, be it through a regional airport closing or the loss of airlines that serve the regions, they rarely ever come back. For our regions to prosper we need strong air links.”
One Tory MP, seen as a rising star in the party, said: “It shows three things – job losses in the regions is something we will not tolerate; the government is not economically liberal – we will intervene on the side of people regardless of longer term, wider impacts of that; and the treasury is not going to be an obstacle to doing this.”
Moreover, there is little resistance within a party seen as the guardian of the free market.
“No one is really thinking yet, all are in post-election euphoria,” the MP said, adding: “The economically liberal right is smaller than you think.”
They conceded it raises questions in the long run about “what happens to a low tax, economically liberal agenda”.
But now it appears that Johnson, along with a figure like Cummings who has strongly criticised the Tory party, is not going to be wedded to the ideologies of the past. Read more