“Boris Johnson just lost the next election”. That was one view in the aftermath of the revelation that Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s senior advisor, had violated the rules of the lockdown.
It was echoed by others. Writing in the Observer, Andrew Rawnsley contended that the Cummings episode ticked all three boxes that determine whether or not scandals evolve into a ‘consequential episode’: it cut through in a big way; it changed how people see the government; and it redefined public opinion in a way that is “enduringly bad”.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
There is no doubt that the scandal met some of Rawnsley’s criteria. Lots of people did notice the story and when they were asked whether or not they thought Cummings should have been sacked, most said yes. The general violation of our collective sense of ‘fair play’, long seen as a key ingredient of British culture, has also impacted the polls.
In the week before the story broke, Johnson’s party averaged 48% of the vote and a 15-point lead; in the polls since they have averaged 43% of the vote and a 6-point lead. If you want to put a figure on the cost of Cummings, then it is around 5 percentage points.
But even so, is this really the game-changer that many think? I’m not convinced. For one thing, we often award scandals a level of importance that is wholly disproportionate to their actual significance. We forget this now, but the Conservatives were re-elected after the Suez crisis, Labour were re-elected after David Kelly and Iraq, and Donald Trump was elected after boasting about groping women.
Even far-reaching scandals like the expenses fiasco, which would presumably also meet Rawnsley’s criteria, turned out to have only a fleeting impact; one study found ‘no evidence of any lasting effect’.
Then there is the way the Cummings scandal is already being diluted by our media’s very different treatment of the George Floyd protests. Even if you support the protestors who demonstrate purpose, as I do, the difference in the coverage is striking.
Just a week after its spluttering outrage over the Cummings affair, BBC’s News at Ten moved to covering mass protests in London while not even mentioning social distancing at all. “Ah but that is false equivalence,” said one person on Twitter.
Why is it false equivalence? Are we incapable of protesting while distancing? Are we allowed to do as we please so long as the cause is considered virtuous? One by-product of the British cherishing fair play is that they loathe hypocrisy.
But there are also other, more important reasons to be sceptical about the duration of the Cummings effect. In today’s more polarised political age, in which our values and identities keep us glued to our party of choice and provide a filter through which we interpret events, the idea that scandals will have such far-reaching effects feels increasingly implausible.
You can already see it in the polls. Perhaps what is so striking is not that the Conservatives have lost a few points, but rather how stable their support has been. Throughout the entire Covid crisis, and the Cummings episode, the incumbent party has not once dropped below 40%, a threshold that many past Conservative leaders would have given an arm for.
As I write, the party is averaging exactly the same level of support that it won at the election six months ago. The ‘rally effect’ that saw voters unite around the Government in the early phase of the crisis has worn off. But a disaster for Johnson? I don’t think so.
Nor is there much evidence that the ‘Johnson coalition’ — that curious alliance between blue-collar workers and southern conservatives — has been disrupted. In the latest post-scandal polls ,the Conservatives not only hold a solid-lead over Labour but a 63-point lead among Leavers, a 12-point lead among the working-class, and a 26-point lead in non-London, southern England.
If Johnson can hold these kinds of leads after the generally poor management of the coronavirus crisis, and the scandal over Cummings, then this suggests that his appeal runs deep.
It also speaks to a more important point that has largely been ignored amid all the hysteria and hype. Labour’s position in the polls has improved but there remains little evidence that it has done so among the key groups that will decide the next election.
The party is currently picking off low-hanging fruit; younger voters, ex-Liberal Democrats, disillusioned Remainers and Londoners. Their support is generally up across the board, but we have yet to see anything like the gains that will be needed to turn this ship around. Many people who have spent the past week talking about the ‘game changer’ already live in Labour seats. Many have yet to grasp the true scale of the challenge before them in order to bring about a return to majority government. I have yet to see a single serious proposal for winning back the working-class.
One reason why Boris Johnson has more breathing space than his critics would have you believe is because Labour has lost not one but two Red Walls. The first fell in Scotland; the second in northern England. In 2010, the election before Keir Starmer was selected to represent his north London constituents, Labour won 42% of the vote in Scotland and 41 seats. By 2019, it was down to less than 19% of the vote and just one seat.
This week, in the polls, there is absolutely no evidence of a recovery in Scotland. The party is in a distant third place, languishing on 13% of the vote; it is 5-points adrift of where Labour was in December, 9-points adrift of the Tories and 41-points adrift of the SNP.
This brings us to the second massive problem that has haunted the Labour Party for nearly two decades and will ultimately decide whether or not Starmer will become Prime Minister: England.
Take away seats in London, university towns and in highly diverse areas of the country, most of which Labour already controls, and the party is left with a rather barren landscape. Labour has not won the popular vote in England since 2001. Let me say that again. Labour has not won the popular vote in England since 2001. By the next election, Labour will not won have won the vote among the English for nearly a quarter-century.
And why is this? Most of these voters are conflicted or, in academic jargon, ‘cross-pressured’. They lean Left on the economy but lean Right on culture. So far, Labour has shown zero interest in speaking to them on the culture dimension because in the world of the Labour Party, to do so is tantamount to pandering to racism.
And so when these socially conservative English voters who don’t live in London looked at Labour’s general wokery — David Lammy’s endless virtue-signalling on Twitter, the Corbynistas praising ‘Luxury Communism’ and with Emily Thornberry’s dismissal still ringing in their ear — they walked into the polling station and said ‘no thanks’ to Labour. The party’s vote in England crashed by 8-points in 2019.
In the latest YouGov, Labour still trails Boris Johnson and his party by a sobering 26-points across southern England. With Scotland gone, and the SNP’s social liberalism a formidable barrier to any recovery, Keir Starmer and Labour somehow have to find a way of staging a rather miraculous advance in England and Wales.
This means building a Red Bridge to the Red Wall. But that means talking to those English who exhibit everything that makes Labour’s London-centric MPs and activists so uncomfortable: a strong attachment to an English rather than a British identity; a desire to slow (not end) immigration; a strong emphasis on the nation; a firm desire to uphold national traditions, myths and symbols; and a quiet yet deep patriotism that is qualitatively distinct from the ‘ethnic nationalism’ and ‘racism’ that Labour associate with England. It is a world that puts flag and family first and which has almost no interest in joining The Great Awokening. And it would most likely give Cummings a free pass rather than open the door to a replay of the New Labour years.
Will Keir Starmer, who pushed so hard for a second referendum, be able to recapture this territory? Does Labour have the vocabulary that is required to speak to the English who have spent the past decade putting their cultural concerns ahead of their economic concerns? And how can Labour build a solid and sustainable bridge between Remainia and Leave Land? These are the questions that will decide the next election, not the antics of individual advisors.