Monday 30 May 2022

Will Dumping Johnson Save the Tories?

If a week is a long time, a month is an eternity in politics. May has had elections that were hard for the Tories, Johnson faced down the Met investigation and Sue Gray's report into PartyGate, and survived, but not without damage. Rishi Sunak began the month saying he couldn't do anything to help people with the cost of living, only to find that he sort of can. There's been policy announcements that make the Conservatives look like the nasty party, and to top it off YouGov's MRP of battleground marginals and red wall seats found the government would lose 85 out of the 88 if the election was held today. Not good news. But hope springs eternal from the Tory breast, and the two centuries of their modern existence shows an uncanny ability to bounce back from uncertain scrapes. Despite the polling, might this be one of them?

Writing in April for Conservative Home, former Theresa May advisor and pollster James Johnson believes there are grounds for Tory optimism. Surveying the wreckage ahead of four calamitous weeks, he argues the Conservative Party's problems can be laid at a single door: Boris Johnson's. All the policies that are good ideas, such as, ahem, transporting refugees to Rwanda, are immediately given short shrift because the Prime Minister is fronting it. Were this article written over the weekend, the lack of poll movement after Sunak's "generosity" would probably merit the same explanation. But! James notes, there's every reason to believe the party brand is intact. "There is no deep-seated hostility to the Conservative Party as a whole amongst voters – certainly nothing like there was in the 1990s."

What should we make of this? The evidence offered is thin. There's a focus group anecdote, how Johnson is trailing Keir Starmer in most metrics, and that Conservative Home readers rate most cabinet members more highly than the Prime Minister. For a pollster with access to reams of data, including, one would assume, the stats on party standing and reputation, this is thin gruel indeed.

There are a couple of points worth noting here. Johnson has come to dominate the Tory Party in ways previous leaders have not, though James's former boss tried the same with her cringe rebrand of the Tories as 'Theresa May's Team' for the duration of the 2017 election - a trick copied from Ruth Davidson. And so the argument might be made that damage to him doesn't necessarily tarnish the party. This is doubtful: ordinary punters tend not to make distinctions between the party and who leads them very often, and even if they did Johnson is defended day-in, day-out by his lieutenants and satraps on the news. His dishonesty and disassembling becomes theirs, and reflects on the party. Second, one only has to look at the policy clown show pushed by cabinet members. Privatising Channel Four when there's no support for it? Slashing the civil service for no good reason? And bringing back imperial weights and measures certainly won't win over any new supporters. If a party consistently does bad things, or refuses to help people as the Tories have done this will be a drag on "the brand".

The second problem, as Johnson acknowledged on the morning after his election, was that many of his party's new voters supported him on the condition he honoured their Brexit vote. The levelling up vapourware is his effort to try and keep them on board with something that might look like what Labour would do in office. The point is, in 2019 Johnson was the best asset his party had. And he carried on being so right through to the Owen Paterson affair and PartyGate. He was the Tory leader who reached parts other Tory leaders couldn't, to borrow the boring and overused Heineken mantra. If he brought new supporters in because he proved he was serious about Brexit, why would those people suddenly come back if Johnson gets replaced? Is Liz Truss going to order air strikes on Brussels?

The Tories' problems are compounding. Long trailing among working age people, their policy agenda makes life more difficult for workers, those in receipt of social security, and the young. Delaying welfare uplifts and imposing the National Insurance increase just as inflation is biting is not a recipe for reversing fortunes. And among the old, the bedrock of their coalition, the cost of living crisis is pounding cracks into its edifice. Small pieces are dropping off to be picked up by Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens, while bigger chunks are wobbling, unsure which way they're going to fall. The Tories can only win if they absolutely dominate the elderly and do well among older working age people. At the moment they seem a million miles away from this, making 2024 a difficult prospect. And after that, who knows what may befall them? One thing is certain. Their difficulties are much deeper than what a change of leadership can fix.

Image Credit


Ken said...

I’m slightly surprised that I haven’t seen any comments in the msm which puts together the fact that Tory voters are disproportionately older, as, I suspect, those who have died from COVID; politics as self-harm.
As for any contenders, the current cabinet, Green Card Sunak, slightly wired Gove, the others who as you point out lie on a daily basis in the morning to support Johnson, or, to be slightly more fair, support his lies, the options for the Tories aren’t that good. The bubble in which they exist was brought home to me when I heard a clip from the Ian Dale show. The subject was the impasse in NI, and when it was pointed out that those who voted for parties which support the protocol outnumbered those against, the Tory replied along the lines, that’s your perspective. (Foucault has a lot to answer for!)
The only possible slightly competent, possible contender is Hunt, who will rule himself out because he will be seen as a remainer.
While all this provides some grim satisfaction, as you never cease to remind us, without an opposition which robustly defends the interests of the newer layers of the working class they could still win if they dump Johnston.
Speaking of defending workers’ interests, I don’t suppose the LP will voice support for the RMT if the strike is called. It’s always good to know who has got your back when the msm will come out guns blazing to attack you.

Duncan said...

If what James Johnson says is true and Tory prospects improve if Boris Johnson goes, then it is imperative he stays and trashes the party for good so that it can never be near power again. The longer Johnson stays the more damage is done.

Anonymous said...

Ousting Johnson will put the Tories into crisis. First Brexit and then Boris Johnson’s populist allowed the Tory vote to expand massively between 2015 and 2019. From less then 37% of the vote to over 43% of the vote. They found 2.6 million extra votes. This new coalition was more northern, more working class and in 2019 at least energised and optimistic about voting for Boris Johnson to get Brexit done and level up.
Obviously Johnson has eroded those gains but most of those voters have not gone any where else. There are many more ex tory voters who no longer say they will vote or moved onto the don’t know category then actively voting Labour or Lib Dem.
Anti Johnson Tories are assuming these voters will come back. I think there Theres a good chunk of voters who will feel utterly betrayed and that a popular populist PM has been stabbed in the back and the peoples will frustrated by what they see as a remainer liberal elite. I worry some of these might move to the radical right or even far right.
Then there’s a bigger block of voters (several million) who have no loyalty to the Tories and don’t see themselves as Tory. Ex Labour voters, Ex Lib Dems, Ex UKIP who both May and Johnson explicitly asked to borrow their votes to ‘sort out’ Brexit. I think Johnson being ousted makes these voters who see them selves as anti establishment more willing to make leaps to other parties including the Lib Dems, greens and Labour.
Now a new Tory leader will need to construct s new voting coalition quickly.
I also think the ousting of Johnson will spark a decade of civil war in the Tory party.
I think some anti Johnson tory MPs calculate in the long term letting Boris Johnson potentially lose the next election and he leaves of his own accord is better for their party.

Duncan said...

'Anonymous' seems to have skated over or ignored Phil BC's (also compellingly made by Jeremy Gilbert) central argument: that the Tory voting coalition is hugely and predominantly old and retired - "working class" propertied pensioners (who may have voted Labour (in ever decreasing numbers in each election - again due to ageing - in the past but don't now).
Danny Dorling has done extensive work on age and voting, and it is all about age. The Tories have few options that Phil in his excellent book explains in the long term - a centre right party like Merkel's CDU (or even Cameron) is highly unlikely under the hard right set up in the party and especially the members.

Blissex said...

«that the Tory voting coalition is hugely and predominantly old and retired - "working class" propertied pensioners [...] Danny Dorling has done extensive work on age and voting, and it is all about age.»

That “all about age” is just the usual neoliberal identity politics propaganda, it is all about material interests for most Conservative voters, whatever their age.

The neoliberal propaganda try to push the “all about age” story advisedly, to fool the opposition into thinking that all of the large old-age cohorts mostly lean to the right-wing, but actually there are many old-age people whose material interests are opposed to those of the right-wing.

Age however correlates with material interests in two ways:

* In the old time mothers (and fathers rather more briefly) relied on their sons as pension assets, and therefore for them rising wages were an advantage. Currently most pensioners rely on fixed-income pensions and to them rising wages are a direct disadvantage (pay more for carers, cleaners, nurses, gardeners, etc.) as well as indirect (higher cost of living inflation).

* Currently many pensioners also have some amount of financial assets (a property deed, an ISA, a SIPP, ...) and they can borrow against them or withdraw from them, and therefore they prioritize rising asset prices and rents, of course primarily residential real estate; but also this gives a material interest in lower wages (and higher immigration, as long as they don't "pollute" nice areas of town) as this can boost the profits of their stock holdings.

My usual quote from a a comment on this same blog in 2020 (and think of the material interests of owner-occupiers, not jut landlords):

I raised the problematic policy on my CLP Facebook group. I was stunned by the support for the policy from the countless landlords who were Party members! "I can't afford to give my tenants a rent holiday" "This is my pension, I'll go bust" etc etc. Absolutely stunning. I had no idea how many private landlords there were in the Party. Kinda explains a lot...

Blissex said...

«work on age and voting, and it is all about age»

There are effects of age as such (rather than changing material interests) on voting, psychological ones, of which this is the main one:

* With age most people feel that their opportunities and choices dwindle, and avoiding risks and threats becomes more important than them.

* Therefore with age most people seek more security, at someone else's expense of course.

* The clever idea of the right-wing is to persuade the more affluent oldies that the "someone else" shopuld be personal wealth extracted from the lower-middle and lower classes, via rentierism (higher asset prices, lower wages).

* An alternative that the left-wing could use is to offer security to all oldies through collective insurance, with well funded social insurance against poverty, illness, disability.

Hard-right parties like Conservatives, New Labour, LibDems also like to offer more security, also at someone else's expense, by advocating authoritarian, brutal policies against never-do-wells, again usually identified with the lower-middle and lower classes (scroungers, extremists, muggers, strikers, trots, ...).

Another of the my usual quotes:
After the election, David Blunkett was promoted to the Home Office. He promised Blair he would 'make Jack Straw look like a liberal'. He was bragging, there's not a politician in Britain who can do that. But again it tells you something about the PM that Blunkett was obliged to make it.

It is now Starmer's turn to 'make Jack Straw look like a liberal'.

Our blogger has also mentioned another less important psychological effect, that the loss of contact with coworkers in a working environment has an individualizing effect, but that can be considered too something that increases a feeling of insecurity.