Photo by Leon Neal
Artillery Row

The Boris coaster

Is there any reason to doubt Boris Johnson has at least one more miraculous recovery up his sleeve?

As the year closes the temptation to write off Boris Johnson and say he will be gone by the summer has never been stronger. The roller-coaster ride of his premiership has been on an accelerating downward track ever since his conference speech in early October. Yet we should know by now that good and bad spells are part of the Johnson phenomenon.

In polling terms, the PM is in only a slightly worse place now than he was when the year began. At the end of last year, the Prime Minister’s personal ratings were in firmly negative territory after an autumn of bumpy decision-making over Covid controls.

According to the YouGov monthly tracker of his ratings, late last December some 56 per cent of voters thought he was doing badly, compared to 37 per cent saying well. Now 64 per cent say he is doing badly and 29 per cent say well. Yet the first half of 2021 saw a strong recovery in his ratings, with the PM peaking in May with 48 per cent saying he was doing well and 47 per cent badly.

Politics is, after all, mainly still about Boris Johnson

It is a similar story with the poll ratings of the main parties. On Christmas Day last year the Politico website’s poll of polls had the Conservatives and Labour locked together at 39 per cent a piece. By mid-May the Tories were eleven points ahead at 43 plays 32. Those ratings followed hard on the heels of the PM’s appeal being underlined in real elections, including the Hartlepool by-election win and a strong set of municipal elections on May 6.

Right now, the polling averages put Labour on 38 and the Conservative on 33, which hardly points to a decisive breakthrough for Labour or an irretrievable situation for the Tories.

The upward stretches of these Johnson oscillations will no doubt get harder for him to pull off as the number of voters he has severely annoyed in some regard or other continues to grow, but is there any reason to doubt he has at least one more miraculous recovery up his sleeve?

Politics is, after all, mainly still about him, and Labour did not take a Tory seat at a by-election this year. To say that Keir Starmer has yet to take on the status of PM-in-waiting is an understatement, and no Cabinet minister seems like an obvious successor either. Given that a “vaccine bounce” pushed Johnson’s ratings upwards in the first half of 2021, could a “booster bounce” not do the same in 2022? If Omicron deaths turn out much lower than the current media hysteria is implying — a bet I’d gladly take — then won’t there also be a temptation for people to credit Johnson for not overreacting to the extent that Starmer has, when it comes to proposing new restrictions now?

Sifting through the key political events of 2021 certainly points to the conclusion that Johnson is not necessarily finished and has plenty of potential cards to play. But it also highlights the flaws in the man and the sense that he is drifting apart from his political base.

The third lockdown officially began on 6 January, and that grim month saw an average of 1,000 Covid deaths per day. Yet the great vaccination drive — the fastest in Europe by far — got properly underway at the same time, and Johnson’s Tories left Labour far behind in the polls.

It was plain sailing until 17 June when the Lib Dems won the Chesham & Amersham by-election. Two weeks later, when Labour just held on in Batley & Spen, the result feeling like a disappointment to the Tories mainly underlined how dominant they remained.

A series of provocations to the base saw much of it losing faith

Another key date was 19 July, when Johnson took England out of Covid restrictions amid fierce criticism from opposition parties. That decision was in general vindicated by subsequent events but just before it came a hint that hubris had taken hold in Downing Street. The PM briefly decided to exempt himself and Rishi Sunak from the requirement to isolate after the pair fell foul of the “pingdemic” that was wreaking so much havoc. A media outcry forced a U-turn, but the lack of wise counsel in the prime ministerial tent was noted.

Johnson’s party conference speech on 6 October came amid a panic about supply chain problems, but again the impact on his poll ratings was minimal. A strong speech focused on levelling-up, and immigration control went down well with the new Tory electoral coalition.

Over the next two months everything fell apart as a series of provocations to that base saw much of it losing faith. On 27 October, Sunak delivered a Budget that broke two key manifesto promises by suspending the pensions triple lock and putting up national insurance.

From 31 October to 12 November Johnson was messianic for carbon net zero as he hosted the COP26 conference on climate change. Early in that summit came his single biggest mistake of the year when he announced on 3 November that he was, in effect, going to use his majority to rip up parliamentary standards procedures and get his friend Owen Paterson off a damning sleaze verdict. As Johnson himself went on to admit: “On a clear road, I crashed the car into a ditch.”

11 November set a new record for Channel migrant crossings — 1,185 on a single late-autumn day. Johnson failed to make the issue a priority, claiming when pressed that it was very hard for the UK to control the numbers arriving without the active cooperation of France. The referendum promise of taking back control of UK borders had seldom seemed such a distant prospect.

The booster programme is likely to boost this king of boosterism

On 1 December, Starmer first asked him about allegations that a Downing Street party had taken place the previous December. Johnson denied it. On 7 December came the leak of Allegra Stratton joking about such an event on video, cementing in the public mind the notion of a prime minister who would turn a blind eye to the excesses of his own circle while demanding higher standards of behaviour from the public at large.

Now Johnson is beset by reverses. Around 100 Tory MPs rebelled against “Plan B” Covid control measures on 14 December. The Lib Dems won the unnecessary North Shropshire by-election on 16 December. Lord Frost resigned on 18 December.

In such a context, the return of Covid as the single dominant story is, in political terms, an opportunity for the PM. In the short-term, the booster programme is likely to boost this king of boosterism and Labour’s poll lead will probably narrow.

The key question that 2022 holds for him is whether to pursue vigorously the brand of Conservatism favoured by his wife — including prioritising net zero and following the advice of Stonewall on social issues — or the brand favoured by his base, featuring immigration control, tougher law and order, levelling-up and playing hardball with the EU.

Above all there is this: If 2022 sees that daily record for Channel crossings broken again in the absence of radical measures to stem the flow, then the base is going to walk away.

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