September 2nd, 2019
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s new administration has so far moved with speed and determination. That’s one reason why so many commentators seem taken in by its impression of tough-minded resolve and tactical acumen. But we shouldn’t be fooled. There are huge risks in the approach that Johnson and his right-hand man Dominic Cummings are taking, and they have made a series of mistakes that might give their opponents the last laugh.
The first blunder the new-model Conservatives made actually predates Cummings’ arrival at Johnson’s shoulder – and that was picking a well-known and shop-worn personality to be leader and Prime Minister in the first place. Johnson has a long track-record, much of it contestable, but all of it controversial. No-one is going to change their mind about him now – and most of the public simply don’t like him.
Introduce a fresh face to the public, a Penny Mordaunt or a Sajid Javid perhaps, and you can reset the narrative. Fair-minded voters will grant hearing to someone they’ve never heard much about: ask John Major, who immediately turned around the Conservatives’ polling fortunes in the winter of 1990-91 before going on to win an unlikely General Election victory in 1992. But the tawdry and fleabitten circus act known as ‘Boris’? Not so much.
Detailing the long list of the Tories’ subsequent errors would take a very long article indeed. The biggest is driving pell-mell at a policy that polls tell us isn’t even backed by a majority of the public any more. By getting committed so clearly, so unequivocally to Brexit at all costs, the Government is cutting itself off from majority opinion. Nor is a No Deal Brexit popular: when YouGov recently asked voters to rank their preferences from +2 (a very good outcome) to -2 (very bad), No Deal came off worst by a long way.
Johnson and Cummings’ methods also leave a lot to be desired, on three fronts. Proroguing Parliament in such a high-handed and confrontational manner may well come back to haunt them. Firstly, most of the public does not agree with this constitutional sleight-of-hand: if we again turn to YouGov’s numbers, voters oppose the executive’s suspension of Parliament by 47 per cent to 27 per cent.
Secondly, that level of extraordinary constitutional aggression has united the Government’s opponents. Just a few weeks ago, liberals and leftists – both theoretically pro-European – could not stand the sight of each other. Labour people were telling us that Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson’s reluctance to deal with Jeremy Corbyn was blocking realistic attempts to stymie No Deal. Liberal Democrats were saying that Labour was a pro-Brexit party as much to blame for the current mess as the Tories are.
Neither set of claims stood up to much scrutiny, of course, but now they seem old hat. Both sides can get together and make up in opposing ‘the coup’, and we’re likely to see a lot more co-operation within Parliament in the coming days. Remainers and No Deal sceptics know it’s now or never. Despite their very different final objectives, they can make common cause now – a cause which many middle-of-the road voters will sympathise with.
Third and last, trying to bypass Parliament has achieved the extraordinary feat of making Jeremy Corbyn look reasonable. Many of his past associations, and plenty of his basic ideas, are anathema to a majority of voters (though quite a few of his actual policies are pretty popular). But who can object to an Opposition leader who calls for more debate, more deliberation, more votes? Keeping the doors of the House of Commons open is hardly a radical demand from the Far Left.
The Government has thrown Labour a lifeline, cheered on by many commentators who cannot see the difference between playing an ace and overplaying your hand. Without Brexit, the Tories would just have to play for time. The people now in control of the Labour Party will tear it apart at some point. They are fixated on their very narrow range of ideological targets, rather than on the service of any one particular party – rather like Cummings himself, in fact.
Labour is about to be convulsed by a series of deselection battles that, while it might not bring down all that many MPs, will divert a huge amount of energy and anger away from the Conservatives, and towards the Corbynites’ own internal enemies (not that there are all that many left). One day soon, the Conservatives might just be able to move in and pick over the rubble. Not if they embark on a No Deal Brexit, or a snap General Election campaign that can only serve to unite Labour people around winning as many seats as possible.
No doubt Cummings feels pretty clever right now, watching protestors marching on the news. He will feel that he is isolating Britain’s strongest pro-Europeans, and that more ‘mainstream’ British voters just want the whole farrago over and done with.
He might well find that he’s committing one of the frequent errors that clever people often make: believing their own hype. No doubt Nick Timothy thought that his ‘Erdington strategy’ of corralling working-class voters into the Conservative camp was working fine – until the whole thing collapsed around him.
Even if the Conservatives win a near-term General Election, and that’s a big ‘if’, the final disaster the Tories are inflicting on themselves is the long-term toxification of their brand. Much of Britain isn’t the insular, suburban, conformist or small-‘c’ conservative place that it was in the 1970s and 1980s, when the Tories were last able to win stable majorities.
It’s increasingly an urban, cosmopolitan, outward-looking, liberal country, one that will look back askance at a transient electoral victory won in the teeth of a new and emergent Britain’s opposition. Pro-European young people are turning away in their droves: unweighted subsets of YouGov data show the Tories share of the vote among 18- to 24-year olds bobbing around between nine and 19 per cent.
Cummings has one get-out-of-jail card, and that Corbyn’s unpopularity. There’s no need for hyperbole here. The Leader of the Opposition is quite simply one of the most unpopular front-rank politicians Britain has ever known. In Survation’s most recent poll, even Labour voters thought that Johnson was more of a strong leader than Corbyn. But the Tories seem to be trying to throw away that great advantage, by alienating as many voters as they can, and by uniting their foes. It’s just about possible that will work in the short term. In the long term, it may well doom the Conservatives to irrelevance.
Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of a series of books and articles on modern Britain, including most recently The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (2017). He blogs at ‘Public Policy and the Past’, and tweets as @gsoh31.