One year ago this Saturday, Boris Johnson handed the Conservatives their largest majority since Margaret Thatcher’s third and final victory in 1987. Along the way, he sent Labour crashing to its worst defeat for nearly a century and captured a large swathe of its most cherished working-class territory.
Ever since then, we’ve been told over and over again that the Johnson premiership has been a total car crash. It is the worst government in our lifetime. The lowest of the low. The wheels are falling off. The Project is unravelling. The Emperor is Not Wearing Any Clothes. But what are ordinary voters saying?
You might not hear this on social media but the short answer for Number 10 is that it’s really not that bad. While Labour has drawn level in the polls, Johnson’s coalition remains pretty resilient. A year ago this week, just before the election, Johnson’s government held a net approval rating of -37. This week? It is actually up a little to -26. And after one of the most turbulent years in post-war British politics that includes one of the worst pandemics in the modern era, an economic meltdown and two national lockdowns the Conservatives are currently averaging 38% of the vote — down just 6 points on the election. Six.
Johnson’s slump in the high thirties is pretty much the best that David Cameron could ever hope for. Drill deeper and you will find that the Conservatives retain strong leads among the groups that were key to their victory last year — a 41-point lead among Leavers and a 9-point lead among the working-class. Nor have I seen any convincing and robust evidence that Labour is fixing the structural problems within its electorate. Ask Johnson’s supporters how he is doing and 83% of Conservatives and 56% of Leavers say “well”. These numbers have come down, certainly, but they remain resilient.
And while we are discussing leadership it is worth pointing out that with the coronavirus vaccine en route and hope in the air, Johnson’s leadership ratings have recently been improving, not falling. His lead over Starmer as “best prime minister” has doubled to 11-points while he holds commanding leads over the Labour leader on who is most likely to bring people together, build a strong economy, “get things done”, “stand up for the interests of the United Kingdom” and tackle coronavirus.
These are not popular points to make in a political bubble that remains largely a proxy battle over Brexit, but it’s hard to look at these numbers and conclude that Johnson is in trouble. For example, after everything, if you ask people today what they would prefer — a Conservative government led by Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, or a Labour government led by Keir Starmer and Anneliese Dodds — the blues lead the reds by fifteen points. It’s not even close.
Why is this, exactly? Some will say that nobody outside of SW1 really knows who Keir Starmer is, or what he believes. And I do think that in our heart of hearts we all know that there is something missing — there is just not much charisma, much va-va-voom. There is certainly an intellectual hole at the heart of the Johnson Project; the general absence of a philosophy holding the entire thing together is something that he should prioritise in 2021. He needs more thinkers and fewer campaigners; they are not the same thing.
But at the same time if you asked me to set out the Starmer Project I’m not sure that I’d know where to start. I might mumble something about him being Director of Public Prosecutions, opposing Brexit, taking the knee for Black Lives Matter and falling out with his father, which I heard on Desert Island Discs. But that is about it. I know nothing about the man, what he believes or where he wants to take Britain. That is not a criticism, just how I suspect most voters see it.
But nor do I think that this is why the Conservative electorate is proving to be a little more resilient than Boris Johnson’s critics, including those from within his own party, would like. The real reason is because whether knowingly or not our Prime Minister has tapped into a deeper realignment that is unfolding not just in this country but across many other Western democracies. His premiership was not just made possible by a single campaigner, a single issue or a well-run campaign; it was related to the underlying tectonic plates of British politics being on the move and long before he even became the leader of his party.
There is a reason why, for the first time in our recorded history, Johnson and the Conservatives emerged from the last election as more popular among people on low incomes than among high earners. Both parties have inverted their traditional base of support, the Tories no longer the party of the rich and Labour no longer the party of the poor. How could it be when Johnson walked away with an astonishing 18-point lead among the C2 skilled workers who we used to call “Essex Man”, and a 15-point lead among all workers?
The real reason, the root cause of Johnson’s resilience, is the new values divide that is cross-cutting our traditional loyalties. In today’s world, where cultural questions have become more important than economic ones, people routinely put their values ahead of their wallets. The moment that Johnson’s team decided to unify the Leave vote was the moment they were destined for victory. Transfer the Brexit referendum result from councils onto constituencies and you are left with the simple but crucial fact that more than 60% backed Brexit. This is what unified the loose alliance of blue-collar workers and affluent conservatives; it was not their very different economic experiences but their shared views of the nation.
Johnson’s exploitation of this realignment was helped by Labour’s disastrous strategy. Having already lost Scotland long ago, and having not won the popular vote in England since 2001, Labour then opted to pursue an ultra-Remain strategy for a Remain vote that was too geographically concentrated to win a general election. It merely confirmed what we had already discovered during the People’s Vote debacle; that many of the people who claim to be wizard campaigners are not wizards at all and that more than a few senior voices on the liberal left essentially have no interest in parts of the country that do not share their view of the world.
This too is reflected in how, at a more fundamental level, Labour has lost its ability to even converse with its more instinctively culturally conservative working-class supporters. This became apparent even after the historic defeat when Keir Starmer and Lisa Nandy tried to sound “patriotic” but were then flooded with complaints from liberal middle-class members in Brighton and London that they had sold out to the far-right group “Britain First”. Win back the Red Wall? Good luck.
Rab Butler, the Conservative politician and contender for one of the best prime ministers that we never had, once said that the secret to making it to Number 10 was being like the butcher who knows how to navigate the joints. You need to know how to cut up a carcass. You need to have the killer instinct. There is no doubt that Boris Johnson has struggled to convince many onlookers that he is the butcher, but he has at times shown the killer instinct by ruthlessly exploiting the realignment of British politics.
It was this reshuffling of the Conservative electorate that also allowed him to emerge as the first Conservative Prime Minister who can credibly claim to have triumphed over the “Europe question”, an issued that played at least some role in bringing down all four of his Conservative predecessors in Number 10 — Margaret Thatcher, John Major, David Cameron and Theresa May.
The Red Wall did not simply fall because Jeremy Corbyn was unpopular. It fell because many of those people put their instinctively “small c” conservative values ahead of their specific attitudes toward things like redistribution and inequality. Johnson certainly appealed to a bit of the latter through his “levelling-up” agenda, which should return to being his overriding priority for 2021, but his appeal was more strongly rooted in people’s belief that he was a Conservative who would finally stand up for family, nation, tradition and established ways of life.
But will he? There have been some signs. Contrary to the meltdown on social media the moves on international aid will be popular among his key supporters, and delivering Brexit is the backbone to his entire premiership. But even still, throughout this year we have been left wondering whether Johnson is simply too liberal for his more socially conservative supporters. Is he really willing to stare down more radical elements of the left?
Is he willing to venture into the culture wars on issues like intellectual freedom and freedom of speech, which enjoy widespread public support? Will he do more to protect and promote the family? Will he speak a little louder for the symbols, institutions and myths of nationhood? Will he do more to not only reform but also ideally lower the level of net migration to sustainable levels, which according to the latest figures remains at a historically high 270,000 per year?
And will he reconcile himself to the fact that when it comes to Brexit there remains a large chunk of his electorate that is not simply looking for the sort of global free trade on steroids that he outlined in his Greenwich speech earlier this year? In other words, can he set out a framework for Global Britain that also acknowledges and addresses the fact that globalisation has not delivered the broad-based growth that its advocates told us it would and think more seriously about how to compensate and repair those communities that have lost out?
All of these questions and others are the ones that will ultimately define what happens next. It was once said that some Prime Ministers are only ever remembered for one thing; Anthony Eden and Suez, Tony Blair and Iraq, Gordon Brown and the financial crisis, David Cameron and Brexit.
While Johnson always assumed that his premiership would be about three things — Brexit, building Global Britain and “levelling-up” the country — his too quickly became about one thing, Covid. But now the clouds are, finally, lifting. The arrival of a vaccine within only ten months of the first case of coronavirus in a British national is a remarkable achievement and the looming sunny uplands will play to Johnson’s optimism. So far, his electorate has weathered the storm, but his supporters will not remain loyal forever.