Facing a rebellion over new COVID restrictions, a potential inquiry into undeclared donations from a Tory peer to pay for improvements to the prime minister’s Downing Street flat and revelations over lockdown-breaking Christmas quizzes and parties, the season of goodwill appears to have bypassed Number 10.
The Tories also face the embarrassment of losing the near 23,000 majority in Thursday’s North Shropshire by-election, a seat the party has held for all but two years since 1832.
But while it’s tempting to blame most – maybe even all – of the party’s current problems on Boris Johnson himself, simply ditching its current leader and replacing him with any of the current frontrunners won’t necessarily see an uptick in the party’s fortunes. Indeed, it might even make things worse.
Johnson, believe it or not, has never been a particularly popular prime minister – not overall anyway. In fact, as research for our recently published book, ‘The British General Election of 2019’, makes clear, his predecessor, Theresa May, was more popular with the electorate as a whole during the disastrous 2017 campaign than he was in the weeks leading up to the Tory triumph two and a half years later.
What Johnson had over May, however, was that many of those voters who did like him, really, really liked him. That, and the fact that many of them were precisely the kind of voters that the Conservatives needed to earn them a comfortable majority – white, not particularly well educated, patriotic Leave supporters, prepared to give his government the benefit of the doubt when it came to ending austerity.
We need to be careful, however, not to allow the prime minister’s outsize personality to blind us to the fact that support for his party in 2019 was, for most voters outside its core support (which runs at around 30%), pretty conditional. Brexit by all means, but with a purpose – that purpose being to allow the government to get on with delivering on rescuing the public services that were struggling badly. Forget bread and circuses. Think bread and butter.
Now, obviously, the Tory manifesto didn’t go too far. It made a few eye-catching headline commitments to spend more on health and policing in particular, but the then chancellor, Sajid Javid, nevertheless managed to persuade Johnson that that needn’t mean junking the government’s ‘fiscal rules’. The economy was seemingly in safe hands – an important factor (along with the fear that Jeremy Corbyn was an indecisive and incompetent spendthrift) in helping to persuade Conservatively inclined Remainers not to desert to the Lib Democrats.
That said, there was no sense in which the manifesto built on the blueprint for a dynamic, deregulated economy laid down a few years ago by the ambitious co-authors of ‘Britannia Unchained’, two of whom (Dominic Raab and Liz Truss) would like to think they have a chance of succeeding Johnson and one of whom (Truss) actually does.
And there’s the rub. Truss’s problem is not so much that she’s taken to performing something of a Thatcher tribute act by riding around in a tank and talking tough on Russia. (Even if some of her colleagues might see it as trying just a little too hard, it probably tickles the tummy of those ordinary party members who are either old enough to remember Maggie Thatcher or else young enough to worship her as some kind of icon.) No, her problem is that her kind of Conservatism – revolving around the supposedly eternal verities of what political scientist Andrew Gamble famously labelled “the free economy and the strong state” – might well mobilise the base. But in so doing it would risk sending many of the voters won (not least in the so-called Red Wall) skedaddling back to a Labour Party that seems, at long last, to be coming to its senses.
The same almost certainly goes for chancellor Rishi Sunak – surely still the front-frontrunner. Sure, he’s associated in the public’s mind with spending squillions, despite doing his best to reassure his party that ‘COVID made me do it’. And that certainly beats swanning around the world doing trade deals most people haven’t heard of. It might also mean that he’s in a better position than his main rival to downplay his ideological drives. However, if Sunak runs for party leader, he won’t find it quite so easy to hide.
One potential advantage Sunak has over Truss, however, is that he comes from an ethnic minority and may therefore help the Tories address their long-term problem with the UK’s people of colour – although whether his appeal will go beyond the Indian diaspora, which is one of the few minority groups already increasingly inclined to vote Conservative, who knows?
Neither of the two frontrunners, though, looks set to do much – in both senses of that phrase – for younger (and, to some extent, better educated) voters, with whom the Tories have completely lost touch over the past decade or so.
Choosing to use National Insurance rises to pay for desperately needed funding for the NHS and social care, along with talk of adding to the burden of those with student loans, won’t help Sunak in this respect. And few millennials, paying through the nose in rent without too much hope of getting on the housing ladder until their parents pop their proverbials, are likely to appreciate Truss’s characterisation of them as “airbnb-ing, deliveroo-eating, uber-riding #freedomfighters!”
So, although the Tory party is famously, as historian John Ramsden once put it, “an autocracy tempered by assassination”, its current ‘world king’ may have some life left in him yet. And even if what is now no more than a trickle of letters to the chair of the 1922 Committee calling for a confidence vote in Boris Johnson eventually becomes a flood, Conservative MPs might want to pause a while and recall Hilaire Belloc’s warning to “always keep a-hold of Nurse/For fear of finding something worse”.