Tory MPs often act, but rarely quickly
Boris is gone. Not in body, obviously. The frequently dishevelled occupant of Number 10 remains in post and will in all likelihood be there for some time to come yet. No, it’s the spirit which has run dry: that bundle of energy and character which enabled him to become a first-name-only politician in the first place.
If there was one iconic image of the man before he became PM, it was him dangling forlornly on a broken zip-wire, gamely waving two Union Flags. At the time, it was quite funny and it took someone like Boris to both engage with the stunt in the first place, and then make light of the predicament once he ground prematurely to a halt.
That picture could now serve as a metaphor for his Brexit policy but it also serves to emphasise the difference between the man then and now. The fun is gone; the energy is gone; the ebullience is gone. There are still occasional flashes of the old Boris, with an impish well-targeted phrase at PMQs, for example. But those moments are fleeting and can now feel dialled in.
The reasons for the change are surely not difficult to pinpoint. To be Prime Minister at any time is to take on an exceptionally demanding job; to be so in the middle of a pandemic, an exceptionally deep recession, and with the Brexit transition end in sight with no deal agreed, is to take challenging to new levels. On top of which, he was seriously ill earlier this year and may not be fully recovered.
Some aspects of Boris do remain. Unfortunately, they‘re mostly those aspects of his character less suited to the job he holds. He has never been renowned for attention to detail, consistency, or – putting the two together – developing and explaining big, consistent, political strategy and priorities.
Some of the criticism that the government’s faced in its Covid response is entirely justified; some, however, is unfair. The U-turns on re-opening and then re-tightening have followed the data. What else do you do? Was it wrong to encourage people to go out? Perhaps. But then the alternative would have been to remain in virtual lockdown even against very low case numbers – would that have been acceptable? Pushing at the boundaries of a return to normality was not unreasonable.
However, that easing didn’t work (not just in England, of course – other governments took similar decisions with similar results). What now though is the Covid strategy and how does it interact with the government’s economic one? A notable feature of the crisis has been the lack of clear co-ordination between government ministries even in what they’re doing at present, never mind what their plans are for the future. That can only be down to a lack of direction, for whatever reason, at the top.
That lack of direction will also inform public attitudes. The public will be much more tolerant of hard times if they feel the government knows where it’s going and has a plan to get there which they look capable of delivering. I have no idea what the current strategic plan is against Covid-19 other than to hope for the cavalry to appear in the form of a vaccine. There probably isn’t one.
In truth, it already is informing attitudes. From a high point in late March, the government’s net rating with ComRes on its handling of Covid-19 has fallen from +49 to -13 in the most recent survey. Johnson’s own rating has declined almost in parallel: from +42 to -17. Similarly, the Tory lead in the polls has fallen from a peak of 20-26% (across all firms), just before the change of Labour leader to a current range of 0-3%. It is surely just a matter of time before Labour records a lead.
But for now, more than nine months since the general election, the Tories do still have a lead. Whatever misgivings MPs may have about their leader, about his loss of spark, his failure to lead, his ruling by decree or his drifting towards No Deal (though watch out for the last-minute concessions there), Johnson’s position will remain secure while his polling remains reasonably strong, backed as it is by his having delivered the biggest Tory majority in a third of a century less than a year ago.
When then might those concerns turn to action? The betting markets point to two distinct periods when they thing Johnson will go. By some way the most likely is ‘later’. Every bookie quoting the market offers evens or odd-on on ‘2023 or later’ (or the equivalent), but by contrast also offer shortish odds on next year (best price is just 9/4 with 888sport) or even this year (no more than 7/1 anywhere.
We should write off this year, for which the odds should be at least three times those offered, probably a good deal more. Unless Johnson’s health collapses, it’s extremely difficult to see what could prompt his departure. To enter a leadership election in the middle of a pandemic and with the Brexit transition deadline looming, it would be suicidal for the Tories to engage in a leadership contest – and because of Brexit, the leadership would have to be contested. Besides, we’re already close to the point where a leadership election couldn’t even be conducted to conclude before the end of the year.
Next year is certainly more possible. The economy is likely to have taken a more rapid downturn and Brexit is more likely to have been concluded, one way or another; there may be a Covid vaccine and politics might have returned to something like normal. If so, the monster round of May elections will take place, which will likely deliver serious Tory losses (if only because 2017 was an exceptionally good year).
However, my tip would be for 2022, which at the time of writing was the equivalent of 9/1 on the Betfair exchange, or 7/1 with the bookies (Ladbrokes in this instance). That falls close enough to the next election for MPs to be worried about a polling deficit, if they don’t think Johnson can recapture the spark that made him an election winner in the past but also gives time for concerns to come to a head. And for all their reputation, Tory MPs are actually quite hesitant in replacing leaders, even against adverse polling.
The history is instructive. Margaret Thatcher was only just deposed in 1990, and that was after she ignored the warning shot sent the previous year, and due to the super-majority rules at the time. John Major was not replaced at all, and was voted back in in 1995 despite his party’s dire position. Similarly, William Hague served through his four difficult years without a challenge. IDS was dumped but only after more than two years through which he made little impact. And most recently, Theresa May was a zombie PM for at least six months, possibly two years, before she was finally forced to quit. Johnson, who unlike all those bar Thatcher won a big working majority, can reasonably expect similar chances before anything terminal happens.
Obviously, there are a great many unknowns between now and 2022. Maybe the Covid crisis will be long gone by then, the economy recovering and any Brexit disruption or perceived betrayals long forgotten. Perhaps. But this is a 7/1 shot or higher and I think the less rosy scenarios sufficiently plausible that the prospects of Johnson quitting or being ousted in 2022 a good deal more likely that those odds imply.