This article first appeared in the Mail on Sunday
It seems scarcely believable that only just over nine months ago a triumphant Boris Johnson was returned to Downing Street with an 80-seat majority that transformed the political map of Britain. The covid crisis has not just derailed the “levelling up” agenda and overshadowed the sunny optimism that was Johnson’s hallmark until the pandemic struck: in political terms it has given the Conservatives a premature case of the midterm blues.
Many voters on all sides take a much more forgiving view of the government’s handling of the crisis than the media coverage might suggest. As I found in my latest research, people spontaneously praise the furlough schemes and the speedy creation of the Nightingale hospitals. Even critics admit that ministers are doing their level best with no precedent to help guide their decisions. In my poll, the proportion saying the government had done a reasonable job in difficult circumstances matched those who thought its handling had made things worse. Boris himself has won some unlikely hearts: “He’s stuck by the British people and done his damnedest to help,” said one 2019 Labour voter explaining his change of heart towards the PM.
But the criticisms are many: why did we not take action sooner, people ask, at the very least by restricting flights from covid-hit countries like China? How could they expect us to take the rules seriously when Dominic Cummings is allowed to drive up and down the country without so much as a reprimand? And why are the guidelines so confusing and contradictory? And while many blame the recent rise in cases on people breaking the rules, they think they know why it happens: “One minute it’s ‘go back to work’, then it’s ‘work from home’,” said one Tory voter in the PM’s own constituency. “It’s frustrating, so I think people will just do what they want to do.”
The crisis has also exposed Johnson’s own apparent weaknesses, with some saying he seemed overwhelmed by a crisis that required grip and attention to detail. While 27 per cent in my poll said he was doing a good job, a further one in five said he could be a good PM under different circumstances but was not the kind of leader we needed at the moment. Some wonder whether he has really recovered from his own encounter with covid. In my poll, the words most often chosen to describe him were “out of his depth” and “incompetent.”
This scrutiny is brought into sharper focus by the advent of Keir Starmer, who has made a good first impression as capable and professional leader, and one more capable than his predecessor of holding the prime minister to account. So much so, in fact, that in my poll he led Johnson by 37 to 30 per cent on the question of who would make the best PM. When we asked people how likely they thought they were to back each party at the next election, Labour and the Tories were tied – with those who had switched to elect Johnson in 2019 less sure than most Tories that they would stay with their new party. I found the Tories had lost their lead over Labour on being seen as competent, having the right priorities, being clear about what they stand for, and being likely to do what they say – crucial attributes on which they led comfortably during last December’s election.
This sort of thing makes many Conservatives nervous. Despite their nasty scare at the 2017 election, Tories are no longer used to being seriously challenged by a Labour Party that seemed to have lost its political bearings.
But they need not despair quite yet. For one thing, Starmer still has a good deal of convincing to do. Though he is clearly very different from Corbyn, voters are much less sure that the Labour Party has really changed – indeed some even question how distinct the two really are, given Starmer’s prominent position in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. The spectacle of him “taking a knee” also makes some former Labour voters in red wall seats wonder if he is prone to the kind of virtue-signalling gesture politics that turns them off. This illustrates Starmer’s big electoral challenge: to unite Labour’s new metropolitan, remain-voting base with the very different, culturally more conservative voters who backed Brexit and peeled away in huge numbers over the last two elections, feeling that the party looked down on them and ignored their views while taking their votes for granted.
But the Conservatives have a similar conundrum of their own, beyond simply making a better fist of grappling with the pandemic. This will centre on the economy – how much the government can or should continue to support businesses and incomes once the current schemes expire and, especially, how the government’s lavish but necessary spending over the last six months is to be paid for.
Last year, Johnson stormed to victory by attracting both Brexit-backing voters in former Labour heartlands and culturally different voters, including many remainers, who were not only horrified at the idea of Prime Minister Corbyn but worried that Labour would bankrupt the country. With Brexit all but done, Corbyn consigned to history and austerity all but repudiated by the Tories themselves, that will be a much harder trick to pull off next time.
Though the pandemic continues to dominate the news, and seemingly all aspects of life, it can seem as though divisions that have shaped British politics for the last four years have not been swept away. In fact, they have not even been suspended. The covid crisis has not transformed the political landscape – but it has added some new contours for the parties to navigate.