For how long can Johnson continue to defy gravity?

For how long can Johnson continue to defy gravity?

He needs to keep running and not look down for four weeks

Wile E Coyote has enjoyed so many lives that even a cat would feel embarrassed, although perhaps ‘enjoyed’ isn’t quite the right word. Time and again over decades he’s been crushed, burned and fallen from a great height but always to return, unharmed, in pursuit of his great but unattainable aim. With such resilience and obsession, he should have been a politician.

We should add one other politician’s anti-quality to resilience and obsession: an ability to suspend awareness – and even effects – of life as it appears to everyone else for as long as he concentrates on his own truth. Thus, he only becomes subject to gravity upon the dawning realisation that the ground is no longer beneath his feet (and even then, often with sufficient grace granted to be allowed a parting gesture).

In truth, gravity is not really all that powerful. When you blu-tac a paper to a wall, for example, you’re overcoming the gravitational power of an entire planet with a small amount of fairly weak adhesive. That said, for us, if not for the Coyote, it is relentless.

Politics, however, adheres to the principles of Coyotean rather than Newtonian physics: it is entirely possible for a party or a candidate to defy electoral gravity for periods of time, until the forces of cognisance align – which is exactly what Boris Johnson is doing now.

The October Mori Satisfaction ratings gave Johnson a positive score of +2, a figure which is in line with other polling: YouGov this week found a net favourable rating of -6. These figures, taken against those for Jeremy Corbyn (-60 and -42, respectively), are no doubt a large part of what’s behind the consistent sizeable Tory leads in the polls – five of the last six companies to publish results have put the Con lead in double figures and the exception (ICM), had it at 8.

If the Tories can deliver a lead of that scale on 12 December, Johnson will almost certainly be back with a comfortable majority. It’s true that the Brexit Party standing in only non-Con seats may make the Tory vote less efficient, piling up larger majorities in seats they already hold, as may the Remain Alliance, but given how super-efficient the Tory vote was in 2017 (very nearly a majority and a lead of 55 seats over Labour with an advantage in vote share of just 2.5%), that should only trim the Con majority, not eliminate it.

But can the Tories deliver that lead? There are two warning lights flashing in the November gloom that should give us pause for thought, one of which is illuminated with a picture of our friend the Coyote, holding a sign saying “don’t look down”.

The problem that the Conservatives have is that while Johnson is himself popular, the government is not. The PM’s unusually strong +2 rating has to be set against the net satisfaction score of the government he leads of a fairly awful -55. This is a disparity that cannot endure. Political gravity may be temporarily suspended but it will, sooner or later, come into play: either Johnson will scramble back to the cliff-edge by pulling the government’s rating up towards his own, or else he will plummet chasmwards as opinion turns against him. My firm expectation is the latter because the fundamentals driving that unpopularity are much stronger; the big uncertainty is when it happens.

The second warning light is Johnson’s own behaviour during the campaign. Time was when Johnson was a considerable asset on the campaign trail: a slightly uncontrolled but exciting bundle of energy and enthusiasm. That time has passed. Johnson is more controlled but also more tetchy. His visit to the flood-affected parts of Yorkshire demonstrated a lack of empathy, compassion or practicality. His inability to make a cup of tea has also been noticed and while that kind of trivial story is usually irrelevant to the bigger picture, sometimes, when it plays to nagging doubts, it can be the sort of thing that helps to tip the scales.

Other challenges await. His inability to do detail risks becoming a running theme in interviews or, later, in debates, should he turn up – though dodging them would open himself up the accusation of running scared. (This may be why Johnson hasn’t been pushing for Jo Swinson to be included in a 3-way debate, which might otherwise pose far more dangers for Corbyn than for the PM). Then there’s “events, dear boy”. We can predict some known unknowns, like how severe the winter stresses on the NHS will become; others will emerge or strike from out of the blue.

For the moment, Johnson remains running in mid-air, held up by nothing more than a collective suspension of belief in the power of gravity, and in a disinclination to look down; indeed, a disinclination to think about anything other than making it to 13 December intact. What happens afterwards is for another day.

In truth, of course, there will be an afterwards and in it he’ll have to keep chasing the road-runner – or, as we know it, Brexit. We know how that ends.

David Herdson

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