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Sunday, December 5, 2021

Calm down about Boris, Tories. He’s still going to win the next election

As a Labour Party member of 34 years’ standing (I left in 2018), I have always been just a little envious of the Conservative Party’s ruthlessness. This aspect of the party was first brought home to me 31 years ago as I watched the drama of the Tory leadership challenge to Margaret Thatcher unfold on our TV screens. 

Received political wisdom since then has been that Thatcher had become out of touch, too Eurosceptic, too deaf to the damage the poll tax was causing to her party’s fortunes. At least some of this is true, but the reasons for her removal can be boiled down to one thing only: the re-election prospects of her MPs.

Why can’t Labour be the same, I used to wonder. Why did my own party stick with its leaders, irrespective of how badly they did in convincing the voters to elect a Labour government? There were even some in Labour who sneered at the Tories’ ruthlessness, as if their single-minded focus on getting into government, and then staying there, was some sort of moral failing.

The consequence of this tendency for the Praetorian guard to assassinate their own emperor whenever the polls turn a bit gloomy leads, of course, to far more regular speculation about the future of Conservative leaders than Labour ones. We’re not at the stage yet when the media starts to ask the chairman of the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers how many letters he’s received demanding a vote of confidence in Boris Johnson (and to think there were those who used to think William Hague’s reform of the leadership election system was a wise move). But after yesterday’s – shall we say “unusual” and leave it at that? – performance by Boris Johnson at the CBI conference, the prospect must be edging its way tentatively into the head space of party managers.

I imagine Labour MPs are encouraging this train of thought. Excited shadow cabinet members will be seen laughing together in the tearoom over those poor Tories and their useless, unelectable leader. Casual banter between the two sides in the Strangers’ Bar will seek to encourage worried Tories to get a letter in: “Or else you’re out next time!”

It’s a sensible strategy for Labour, as far as it goes. In public they exhibit nothing more than angry contempt for the Prime Minister. Yet after two and a half years of his premiership, and years before then as a high profile London Mayor and foreign secretary, it has surely occurred to Labour that maybe the public don’t see eye to eye with them on Johnson’s merits.

Look at the polls, and then look at your average Labour activist’s Twitter feed. And then have a chat with an ordinary apolitical member of the voting public. The chasm is extraordinary. 

The unhinged hatred of Johnson exhibited by Labour Party members would suggest that he is a political leader who has split Britain from top to bottom. The 80-seat majority he won in 2019 was no more than a flash in the pan, an electoral fluke that represented the unhappy conflation of Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.

Yet the polls show Labour and the Conservatives basically level pegging – a pretty extraordinary result for a party of government that has been in charge during a pandemic, a consequent economic shut down, a self-inflicted scandal about MPs’ lobbying and a speech to business leaders that focused more on Peppa Pig than on economic policy.

Could it be (and bear with me here) that Johnson is actually a popular politician? Is it just possible that the man who won the mayoralty in a heavily Labour-voting city – twice – and who then went on to lead his party to their biggest electoral victory since 1987 possesses qualities that the Conservative Party should actually value?

Have those Tory MPs who are briefing journalists about how unhappy they are with Johnson got such short memories that they’ve forgotten that the last time their party won an overall majority, in 2015, it was in single figures? And that the last majority before then had been secured 23 years earlier?

None of this is to say that Johnson is the most qualified or competent candidate to be prime minister. He may well be but that is not the point. The point is that a party that prides itself on prioritising electoral success over political principle is now risking its own prospects by even hinting that Johnson’s services might be dispensed with before the next election. 

If the best – the very best – Labour can manage is a transitory six point lead in the polls, achieved during the worst – the very worst – period experienced by the Government since the Tantrum Parliament in 2019, then is it just possible that it is Johnson himself, his personality, his character, that is preventing his party sliding further?

In the 2000 presidential elections, a TV news vox pop conducted at a bar in the American Midwest concluded that while Al Gore, the Democrat, was seen as by far the most intelligent and qualified candidate, most voters would prefer to have a beer with his rival, George W Bush. And we all know what happened then.

In an age when politics and politicians are regarded with (often unjustified) contempt, the leader who is liked for his own sake is a valuable asset. Floating voters may roll their eyes at Johnson’s antics, but they probably imagine that if they met him, they would be able to share a joke with him. That is more important than nervous Tory MPs or perpetually angry Labour ones understand.

True, Johnson may well one day crack a joke too far, appear to be just a little too disorganised, a little too disrespectful of an important audience. But by any current measure, that day has not yet come. There’s a very good reason Labour want rid of Boris Johnson before the next election. The Conservative Party would be foolish to grant its wish.

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