CON MPs will replace their leader if they feel Johnson’s shine has gone
For the moment, Boris Johnson walks on water in terms of popularity. He enjoys positive approval ratings, his party sits on opinion poll leads of around 20% and is hoovering up about half the vote. All of which is likely to count for very little in a year’s time, never mind three.
It goes without saying that these are abnormal times and that we should therefore treat all opinion polls with a degree of scepticism as far as they’re indicative of how opinion will lie when politics as normal resumes – or if politics as abnormal continues for a long time, as is possible. The bounce that both the Tories and Johnson personally have received, whether from a rally-round-the-flag effect or from the public being impressed by dramatic action being taken (or both), those effects are likely to wane as lockdown fatigue sets in.
The government’s handling of the outbreak is already decidedly mixed. It may get away with having been late in locking down because a few days one way or the other, two months ago, makes far more difference in the epidemic’s transmission than in ongoing public perception. On the other hand, the scandal of so many deaths having been brought about by hospital discharges into care homes is something where the government is very vulnerable and is already mismanaging its political response.
On the other hand, the financial support measures do appear to have enabled the economy to be put in a place from which it can recover quite quickly once the brakes are taken off. The contrast with the 36m new jobless claims in the US is obvious.
Even so, by this time next year, the UK will have had the triple challenge of (1) managing the health crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic, (2) handling the economic and social consequences of the policies needed to mitigate the health crisis, and (3) the expiry of the Brexit deadline.
You might assume that given the first two, the third would be delayed, as the Withdrawal Agreement permits. Don’t expect it. Because an extension has to be requested so early in the process, when the pressure isn’t obviously on, it won’t be requested by a government elected on a clear mandate to Get Brexit Done, and which apparently believes that if a deal can only be done under extreme time pressure, better sooner rather than later.
Put simply, there is a real chance that elements of the lockdown will continue for many months, that deaths will continue to mount, and that 2021 could easily begin with the economy taking the hit of a No Trade Deal Brexit on top of the Covid-19 recession (which is a global phenomenon as well as a UK one), combined with an NHS struggling from the usual winter pressures in addition to the lingering Covid-19 outbreak – all on top of some continued social distancing and a population fed up with being stuck in a cold, wet, dark country which may well have been denied its Christmas parties as well as its summer holidays. These are not usually the elements that point to massive government approval, especially if expectations have not been properly managed – as they haven’t been.
They are, however, the elements that will define the rest of the parliament: the legacy from both Covid-19 and Brexit will last years. What then of Boris Johnson, whose prime role in life has always been to cheer people up? If he cannot sell sunny optimism because it’s so clearly out of line with the situation, and if he cannot lead the government through the more usual political skills, what is his purpose?
The obvious answer is to win elections, something he’s a very good track record of and which Tory MPs won’t dismiss lightly. However, past performance is no guarantee of future success, particularly in changed circumstances, and under the much more forensic spotlight of an opposition led by Keir Starmer, Johnson may struggle. His response to that kind of scrutiny during the election campaign was to hide in a freezer or duck from Andrew Neil: options not available now.
As an aside, we might be making a little too much of Starmer’s good PMQs this week. As Shadow Brexit Secretary, he was less effective at putting pressure on the government than Tory MPs were. That was partly down to both the parliamentary maths and Labour’s own divisions but it was also down to Starmer’s tactics, which lacked a good media game. The Covid-19 / care home scandal is an issue Starmer is well-suited to pursuing; such issues will not always be available and whether he can make similar headway at those times is more of an open question.
That said, four years is a long time and governments that enjoyed good ratings in their early months – Thatcher in 1987-8 or Blair in 2001-2 – can easily find them fade rapidly if events turn against them. There are more than enough political storm clouds on the horizon now to provide such potential events.
In this case, the likelihood is that if opinion does turn, it will turn against Johnson personally because it’s unlikely that this government will advance a policy as unpopular as the Poll Tax or Iraq War. Brexit is certainly divisive – even more so if it becomes a no Trade Deal Brexit – but it has many ardent supporters too. But questions of style and ability are much more likely to be foremost.
And if that is the case, then the solution for Tory MPs is not to change the policy but to once again change the leader – something they’ve proven more than capable of in the past. Here, Johnson’s 80-seat majority becomes not an asset but a liability. One of the main reasons why it took May so long to be toppled was fear of what might happen in parliament afterwards; that doesn’t apply now. Likewise, Major survived the 1992-7 parliament because both wings were more worried about the other winning a leadership contest than they were about Major continuing – so he did. But now, there are no two wings in the same way. His sole protection is his popularity.
To that end, I think the odds on Keir Starmer as next PM (currently 2.7 on Betfair; slightly worse than the 7/4 with Betfred), are poor. If Johnson looks like a loser, he’ll be replaced; if he looks like a winner in 2024, he may well be. It’s only if Tory MPs miscalculate or are paralysed into inaction that the bet is likely to come off, and that’s worse than a one-in-three shot in my book.