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Going, Going, Gone ....?

About bloody time too, if you ask the millions of Johnson detractors out there. And, as his party licks gaping wounds and his MPs with small majorities fulminate about their future, the Prime Minister’s days at Number Ten certainly look numbered. But, as our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, it’s not that simple.

No question, it was more than a whoops-a-daisy moment, simultaneously losing two by-elections, one by the biggest swing anywhere, ever.

And parallels have been drawn between Johnson’s absence on the night, and Margaret Thatcher’s when the death knell sounded.

She was at a glittering banquet in Versailles. He was in Africa, reminding Rwandans the Brits are gagging to send asylum seekers there. Yerright.

Prince Charles, also at the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit, may well have put them straight. But that’s another story.

It does, however, feed into the narrative of an electorate maybe getting a teeny bit concerned about a government that apparently doesn’t do rules.

Its answer to an international court’s blocking of deportations to Rwanda is to tear up the Human Rights Act. Basically, telling the judges to do one.

Similar picture over trading arrangements for Northern Ireland. Binning the agreement Johnson himself signed up to.

All a bit legalistic, perhaps, but not so the collective culture in Downing Street during the Covid lockdowns.

Partygate. While nearly all of us dutifully agreed to comply with the laws, the folk who devised them flouted them.

This subject came up a lot on the doorsteps during the by-election campaigns in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton. Unsurprisingly.

Unsurprisingly also, the ongoing parliamentary probe into whether Johnson makes Pinocchio look handsome presents a clear and present danger.

Likewise the distinct possibility the Tory backbench committee that oversees votes of no confidence might revisit its own rules.

After Johnson saw off, just about, his backbenchers’ determined attempt to unseat him, he’s supposed to be safe for another year.

But the Tory party prides itself on its flexibility. The next challenge is hardly likely next week. But it could come at any time.

After all, these guys do take soundings. And discombobulated Conservative MPs aren’t fooled by claims that last week’s losses are quite normal really.

Anyway, the unexpected resignation of Tory Chairman Oliver Dowden dispels the myth that what happened last week was already priced in.

Will others follow? No fewer than two former party leaders have said they should. A space worth watching …

A space, meanwhile, not explored in the shouty headlines, is the manifestly greater savviness of today’s punters.

Britain’s winner-takes-all voting system has served the two main parties very well in the past, which is why they’ve never wanted to change it.

But both last week’s by-elections saw the bypassing of that little local difficulty on a huge scale.

Tactical voting shifts the priority away from getting the preferred candidate in to keeping the not preferred candidate out.

In hitherto rock-solid Tory Tiverton and Honiton, it gave a massive leg-up to the Lib Dems. And the bird to the Labour candidate.

Same thing happened to the hapless Tory in Wakefield. They hadn’t held it long, and they don’t hold it now.

Not that the swing there was anything like as large. And, try as he might to big up the result, Keir Starmer knows he’s still not cutting it with the voters.

Yes, the pollster J.L. Partners did not so long ago find the word most commonly associated with Boris Johnson was ‘liar’.

But they also noted last week that Starmer’s seen as: ‘Boring, dull and bland.’

The poor fellow must be quite bored with hearing that, what with some members of his top team being just as horrid about him.

But from the word go he’s lacked that most precious of all political gifts. Luck.

He gave his lawyerly all to the fight against Brexit. But losing the case is never a good look.

Then, when he got the leadership anyway, along came Covid. And, as with any national emergency, normal political hostilities were suspended.

Same as when Putin ushered in the new world disorder, trying to trash Ukraine and giving the world the jitters.

And even with the much smaller but still nagging problem at home, namely the succession of rail stoppages, he’s stuck with, ahem, nuanced messaging.

Meaning boring, arguably. But he does have a problem.

Back the strikers and he infuriates inconvenienced passengers. Condemn them and he’s got a sizeable slice of his own party on his case.

As it is, he’s got to decide how to rap knuckles/smack bottoms after senior figures defied his orders and showed up on the picket lines.

But this is only the beginning.

British Airways workers at Heathrow have already voted overwhelmingly to walk out over pay during the school summer holidays.

Also, teachers, doctors, nurses, civil servants, local government workers, barristers, postmen, BT engineers and traffic wardens are getting restive.

All, broadly, for the same reason. The cost of living crisis gnawing at their pockets while below-inflation deals effectively cut their wages.

Naturally, there’s a lot of chatter about a return to the dark days of the 1970’s and repeated references to a summer of discontent.

Hardly the glorious summer Shakespeare gets Richard The Third promising, after the winter of our discontent that no one seemed to like very much.

Tudor propaganda though the play might have been, the Machiavellian ways of the wayward monarch have a sort of echo today.

While ministers keep telling workers they mustn’t be greedy and expect their pay to keep up with inflation, they’re making sure state pensions do.

Estimates vary, but it seems well over half of Tory members are quite close to retirement, and not far short of that have already hung up their clogs.

Surely just a coincidence? Discuss.

Then there’s the question of who backs industrial action, and who doesn’t.

According to last week’s YouGov poll for the Times, just over a third of those surveyed supported the rail strikes, while nearly a half didn’t.

And a breakdown of the figures showed that those harrumphing the most loudly were retired folk. That’s to say, key Conservative voters.

But before the whippersnappers in the cabinet get too cocky, it’s worth bearing in mind Lord (Ken) Clarke’s thoughts on the subject.

Okay, he’s a dinosaur of the suede shoes and jazz age, and probably has no idea that these days the word ‘slay’ doesn’t mean to kill but to be cool.

But he was around when one-time miners’ leader Arthur Scargill had a small house and a large union. (Cf now, small union and large house.)

And he witnessed first hand how quickly and decisively the feckless voters can switch sides.

‘Public opinion is always very angry with the trade unions when they first start causing disruption,’ he says.

But after ‘a week or so’, he warns, people have suddenly had enough. And at that point:

‘They get angry with the government for not .. getting out the tea and biscuits, getting them in and paying them whatever it takes to get things going again.’

Why stop at biscuits, Boris? Surely a nice slice of birthday cake would be more your style?

Oh, naughty naughty!

Peter Spencer has 40 years experience as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, working with London Broadcasting and Sky News. For more of his fascinating musings on the turbulent political landscape, follow him on Facebook & Twitter.


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