Faith in the voters

Boris’s secret is not treating the electorate like depressing raw material

Sir Keir Starmer’s face is not his best friend. Cheery comes over as bland, a bit like an overfed labrador. His miserable face, pictured this week behind the peeling windows of his London office, manages to look hangdog while remaining expressionless. And his face muscles don’t “do” spontaneity.

This may help to explain why so many commentators have rushed to opine that the Tories did so well in northern England this week for one simple reason: people “just like Boris”. Quite a contrast with their doomsterish assertions, a mere week earlier, that the public might forgive Johnson most things, but that they would tear the Teflon skin off his back for splurging on fancy wallpaper.

The likeability idea may seem obvious, but it is, to me, lazy thinking.

In 1945, people did not exactly like Clement Attlee. They thought him a decent chap, but they knew as little about him as he wished — in any awkward detail — to know about them. But they did warm to his message that with the end of war, there would be an end to privilege and a massive transfer of private wealth, industry and assets to “the people”.

People did not like Margaret Thatcher very much either. Yet lifelong Labour voters flocked to her, in droves. After the 1978-9 winter of discontent it wasn’t just that Labour lost: Thatcher won. Then in 1979, and again and again. She won over unionised workers (and their spouses) who were fed up with endless strikes (and strike pay). She won over people tired and depressed by being told that Britain was in the business of managing decline. Above all, she won because what she, and Boris, and Blair at his early best, had — and have — in common is energy: that, and the ability to convince people that things can and will be better, and that they can see ways to that better future. 

Labour gives the impression nowadays that it sees the populace as pretty depressing raw material

What Boris and Mrs T also have in common (Blair, more of a top-downer, is absent here) is that they exude(d) faith that each and every individual has talents and imagination and ambition that need only to be better fostered to blossom. “A hand up, not a hand-out” in Thatcher’s day is Boris’s “levelling up”. Labour, by contrast, on the rare occasions when it turns its gaze from its internal squabbles, gives the impression nowadays that it sees the populace as pretty depressing raw material. People dislike being treated as objects. 

Above all, Attlee, Thatcher, Blair and Johnson were “big picture” politicians, radicals each in their own way who stand out against the post-war backdrop of bleary consensual Butskellism, politicians out to energise people, not merely to avoid offending different constituencies.

You will object, rightly, that Thatcher and Johnson could hardly be more opposite. Only think what Thatcher, proudly the books-balancing grocer’s daughter, would make of Boris’s predilection for “having and eating cake”. 

He has a mischievous streak, loves banter; for Thatcher that would have been time wasted. She was hyper-organised (she had to be, with all those condescending suits around, not just at home but in Brussels); Boris almost makes a “thing” of not being, though how much of this is fact and how much a “blokeish” fiction I would not wish to guess.

Boris is not famous for attention to detail. Thatcher was famous for it. I recall the acid rain incident. Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor who was one of many to underestimate her to his cost, was persuaded that Britain, the winds blowing sou’westerly, must be the cause of acid rain deforestation in Germany, and summoned Thatcher to what he expected to be a dressing down. She, a chemist by training, summoned scientists to Chequers for a weekend’s briefing, then headed out. There was a general meeting followed by a one-on-one. As Thatcher left, Kohl groaned to his aides, “Never let me hear the word ‘acid rain’ again.”

Not a trick that Boris would have pulled off. But then, he would have turned the conversation to other subjects. And probably got away with it. Because he knows, more or less, where he is going and awkward detail (for better or worse) isn’t going to deflect him.  

Precisely because they are local, local elections are pretty forgettable episodes in most peoples’ lives. It is a fair bet that the thought of umbrella-free pub lunches means much more to millions than the Tory takeover of northern England. Even so, the results bucked the trend for these British versions of America’s mid-term elections. A consequence of Corbyn and Covid — as Peter Mandelson suggests? Nor even that other more persuasive but still inadequate explanation, the symbiosis between emergency and incumbency, fully explains it.

Consider how the Englishman dresses. Sloppily, for the most part, though he likes to think foreigners with their shiny blue suits do it worse. Boris is a sartorial shambles (Churchill’s siren suits, had Churchill not been inside them, weren’t so hot either.) But his indifference to “looking the part” paradoxically assists the public impression that he is all about “getting stuff done”.

Finally — here I get close to ceding some ground to the “likeability” camp — whether or not people like Boris, he gives a convincing impression of actually liking people. Finding them fun. Finding them interesting. Ye Gods! 

As exam questions used to say before they became multiple choice — “compare and contrast” with Emmanuel Macron. It may be no coincidence that, far from experiencing an “incumbency boost”, the lofty President Macron is discovering that his contempt for le petit bonhomme is returned, with interest. In politics as in life, it helps to like the human race, ugly face and all. 

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