The audience shouted at Maria Caulfield, an inoffensive junior health minister, on BBC TV’s Question Time this week, when she defended Boris Johnson. This was supposed by some observers to indicate the exceptional level of public anger towards the prime minister about lockdown parties in Downing Street.
I am not sure if these observers are familiar with the programme, or with the British electorate. British voters tend to take a negative view of politicians, and some TV programs are designed to exploit the decline of deference, although now that people have social media it seems a bit 20th century to go to a studio to shout at a politician in person.
This is not to deny that a lot of people are angry about “do as I say not as I do” lockdown laws. The issue comes up spontaneously in any focus group about politics, and most people tell opinion pollsters that the prime minister should resign over it, whether or not the police serve him with a penalty notice.
On the other hand, if people are asked who they would prefer to have as prime minister, which is the acid democratic test, Johnson regained his narrow advantage over Keir Starmer in the contest of lesser evils last month.
My view is that lockdown parties will be a minor issue in the next election campaign. Labor will reproduce those NHS posters from the pandemic: “Look her in the eyes of her and tell her you never bend the rules.” But the election will be decided by other things. Those who feel most strongly that Johnson demanded sacrifices of others that he and and his staff weren’t prepared to make themselves have already decided what they think, and still the plurality of the people think that Johnson is a better choice as prime minister than either Starmer, the leader of the official opposition, or Rishi Sunak, the leader of the unofficial, internal, opposition.
I thought Johnson’s failure to sack Dominic Cummings two years ago for breaking lockdown rules, long before the parties came to light, was disastrous, but it wasn’t. People were very annoyed about it, and Barnard Castle became the most famous day trip destination in the country, but eventually Cummings left No 10 and other things happened – not least Cummings’s so-far unsuccessful campaign of revenge against his former boss.
That doesn’t mean that Johnson is safe. The Conservative Party knows how difficult the next two years are going to be – for the country and therefore for its chances of winning a fifth consecutive election (counting 2010 as a win because it resulted in a Conservative prime minister).
In a revealing presentation in Downing Street two weeks ago, David Canzini, the prime minister’s deputy chief of staff, set out the government’s priorities. It is a list that ought to be tattooed on the backs of every Labor person’s hand: Brexit; the cost of living crisis; the NHS; crime; and migrant boats. In that order. Although number one is really the cost of living, with Brexit put at the top of the list in order to galvanize what Cummings used to describe as a “Vote Leave” government, and to confuse, divide and distract the opposition.
Leave and Remain are still more important political identities than party loyalties, and the Tories will keep finding ways of reminding the voters of that. And they will have to do so, not least because the other four priorities are so hard for the government to turn round in time for May 2024.
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On the cost of living, the calculation seems to be to take the pain now in the hope that people will feel they are heading in the right direction by the time they come to vote.
NHS waiting lists will be falling by the time of the election, unless there are other pandemic-type disasters lurking in the equivalent of bat caves in south-east Asia, but whether the improvement will be dramatic enough to generate any political credit is an open question. Similarly on crime, the best that the Tories can hope for is enough new police officers to keep Yvette Cooper at bay. And on small boats crossing the Channel, their only hope is that Labor doesn’t have a credible answer either.
Against the scale of these challenges, the anger at lockdown parties will fade. But there will be other things that people will be furious about. The one thing we know about Johnson is that he is bound to do dreadful things. It will be something else. We know the sort of thing it will be: something to do with his chaotic personal morality or his casual attitude to money and property. But what, exactly, and how bad, and how close to polling day? Only time will tell.
I think he is more likely than not to lead the Conservatives into the next election, and they are more likely than not to win again. But each of those is perhaps a 52 per cent chance against 48 per cent, the permanent ratio of British politics.