December 18, 2021   7 mins

The Conservative Party’s heavy by-election defeat in North Shropshire is clearly little short of a political earthquake. Held by Conservatives for nearly two centuries, this pro-Brexit and heavily white British seat switched to the Liberal Democrats on a stunning 34-point swing, the second largest from the Tories to the Lib Dems on record; the seventh largest swing in Britain’s political history. What is less clear is whether it’s the end of the beginning for Boris Johnson, or the beginning of the end?

Governing parties have suffered even heavier defeats and have still gone on to win a majority at the next election (as David Cameron can testify after losing Clacton to the UK Independence Party before going on to win his surprise majority in 2015). But this defeat has already become symbolic of a much deeper crisis engulfing Johnson.

Beyond the leafy lanes of Shropshire, the symptoms of this crisis are not hard to find. Amid chaos in Downing Street and rebellions in parliament, Johnson and his party are now consistently trailing the Labour Party in the polls. Labour has surpassed 40% of the vote, a barrier it has not breached since the start of the year. And the Conservatives have just slumped to 32%, a low they have not encountered since the very depths of the Brexit crisis in October 2019, since before Johnson’s election victory.

Even without the polls, we can all see and sense that Johnson is on the ropes; that what began with the largest majority for any Conservative for more than 30 years now looks bizarrely, perilously fragile. This was further reflected this week when a visibly exhausted Johnson suddenly found himself confronted with one of the most significant parliamentary rebellions in history, when almost 100 of his own MPs revolted against his decision to introduce yet more Covid restrictions.

This revolt was bigger than the one David Cameron faced in 2011, when his MPs rebelled to push a referendum on Britain’s EU membership; it was bigger than the one John Major faced in 1997, when his MPs rebelled over gun control measures in the aftermath of Dunblane. It was almost as big as the rebellion Theresa May faced over Brexit, in 2019, which with the notable exception of Labour’s rebellion over the war in Iraq was the biggest since the revolt over Corn Laws in the 19th century. This, in short, does not bode well.

In just 24 months, Johnson has gone from appearing as the political equivalent of Logan Roy in Succession, fully in command of his Conservative family while surveying the landscape with a clear sense of purpose, to appearing more like Connor Roy, the hapless, politically naïve eldest son who is not entirely sure where he sits within his family or what his purpose is.

And so Mr Johnson finds himself under fire from all sides. On the Right, they say he is not the Prime Minister they hoped he could become; on the Left, they say he is everything they predicted. Either way, amid all the frustration his leadership ratings have crashed to the lowest level on record: this week, Survation put Johnson’s net favourability on minus 29, a new low.

Remarkably, ask the British people today who would make the best prime minister and for the first time for more than a year, Starmer leads the pack. Were an election held tomorrow, Labour would emerge as the largest party, albeit one short of an overall majority. Starmer would be PM. Rachel Reeves would be in charge of the economy. David Lammy, Angela Rayner and perhaps Nicola Sturgeon would be sitting alongside them around the Cabinet table. Johnson would go down in history as a busted flush.

What lies at the root of the crisis? It is impossible to answer this without considering how Johnson won power in the first place. The reason he won the largest Conservative victory since Margaret Thatcher’s final majority in 1987 is because he grasped what so few others did: the unfolding realignment of British politics, a structural correction that has made available an entirely new and formidable coalition of voters.

Forget what people say. The realignment was never just about Brexit or the unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn, even if these elements helped it along. It was always rooted for far more strongly in a deep and profound disillusionment with the political consensus that has dominated Britain for half a century. EU membership. Mass immigration. Hyper-globalisation. Radical cultural liberalism. And a politics built by middle-class graduates for middle-class graduates.

Johnson’s electoral dynamite always came from the fact that he was the first mainstream politician to offer a genuine break from that consensus: to leave the EU, strengthen the country’s borders and level-up a forgotten blue-collar Britain. And this is why he was able to completely transform the Conservative Party’s electorate along the way.

It is why he won three-quarters of the Leave vote. It is why he demolished one flank of the Red Wall and left another vulnerable. It is why he mobilised a new coalition of voters who are spread across the country far more efficiently than Labour’s voters who are concentrated too heavily in big cities and university towns. And it is why he had an almost 20-point lead over Labour among the Greggs Guys — Britain’s plumbers, mechanics and factory workers who, like the True-Blue Tories in the south, rallied behind Johnson because they believed he offered a genuine alternative to our dreary politics.

But what Shropshire and the polls tell us, clearly, is that today, though, many of these voters are reaching a very different conclusion: their gamble on Johnson simply has not paid off. Between all the talk about net zero, tax rises and trying to be all things to all voters, he is adrift from the coalition that propelled him to power. Since the aftermath of his victory in 2019, the share of Johnson’s voters who plan to vote for him again has crashed from 95% to 73%.

The Leavers are leaving him: the disgruntled and the disillusioned— his core voters — are off. By failing to make the most out of Brexit, by failing to robustly defend British history and heritage, by failing to get his arms around illegal migration, by failing to take on the radical progressive Left, by failing to define and deliver a serious strategy for levelling-up, by transforming the Conservatives from an aspirational party of low-tax to a government that is introducing the highest tax burden since the Fifties and by putting the state on steroids, he has given the new Conservative voters more than a few good reasons to walk.

And walk they will. Over the past two years, the percentage of Leavers who say they are loyal to Johnson has collapsed from 76 to 55%. As a result, the big leads the Conservatives once enjoyed among the working-class are also dwindling, with the party’s support in blue-collar Britain sliding from 51 to 38%. His coalition is falling apart.

Yet they are certainly not going to Labour. These voters have little time for Keir Starmer and a Labour front bench which, with the help of Ed Miliband, David Lammy and Emily Thornberry, appears determined to remind voters why they rejected Labour at the last three general election and the Brexit referendum. On the economy and immigration, similarly, the Labour brand remains toxic in the eyes of so many. The fact that its vote declined by 12-points in Shropshire, while nationally is at the same level that it was a year ago speaks volumes.

Some of Johnson’s voters are certainly defecting to Reform, a new revolt on the Right which is attracting a far from insignificant 11% of Johnson’s 2019 voters. Put Nigel Farage on top of Reform for a month and in the current climate, that figure could quite easily double, not least because Johnson appears determined to reignite the radical Right bonfire his party spent years trying to put out. But much larger numbers are simply giving up on politics altogether, drifting into apathy. In recent weeks, the percentage of 2019 Conservative voters who say they will not vote at the next election, who do not know who they will vote for or who refuse to say either way has more than doubled, surging from 18 to 38%.

Johnson’s voters are giving up on politics because he is giving up on the realignment, no longer sure what he should say or who he should be saying it to. So many of his voters are returning to what they did in the 2010s: sitting it out, waiting, watching and looking for an alternative. They thought Johnson was that alternative. Now, they are not so sure.

It is the defection of these Leavers which poses the biggest problem to Johnson. He reshaped his entire premiership and political party around them. If his core voters go, then the realignment collapses and the Conservatives will be finished. The party will haemorrhage middle-class graduate votes to the Liberal Democrats in the south and pro-Brexit, working-class votes to apathy in the north. They will come under attack from all sides and no longer have a viable coalition.

The only way forward for Johnson now, for his increasingly rebellious party too, is to reconnect with the very people who put them in power to begin with, to double down on the realignment and forget about everybody else. It’s not popular but it is politics. Brexit may be fading into the distance but there are many other issues that could just as powerfully unite the new Conservative electorate particularly ahead of a general election at which a Labour-SNP coalition is a serious prospect. Immigration is one. Crime is another. Defining and delivering a serious levelling-up strategy is another. And so too is robustly defending British identity, history and culture from an increasingly radical progressive left (just ask Republicans in Virgina).

There simply is no alternative. If you think that after everything we have witnessed in the past two years — Brexit, Cummings, Covid, Johnson’s personal failings and the utter chaos in No. 10 — that the Conservative Party can win back the Londoners, Remainers and professional middle-classes in time for the next election, then I have a bridge to sell you. No, the only way forward for him now is to start ditching advisors and doubling down on where he began.

If Johnson reconnects with his core voters hie will extend his premiership until the end of this decade. If he loses them he will lose his premiership and party. This core vote strategy would not be popular in SW1 but it is now the only thing that will keep him, the Conservative Party and those Red Wall MPs in power. Two years ago, Johnson was swept into power because he challenged the consensus on Europe. Whether he is willing to keep challenging that consensus will now determine whether he stays there.

Matthew Goodwin is Professor of Politics at the University of Kent. His new book, Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics, is out on March 30.