The PM's defeat in Shropshire North shows that the UK has moved on from 2016
Four out of five Tory MPs in Parliament have majorities smaller than the almost 23,000 votes wiped out in the Shropshire by-election last night. The constituency had been held by the Conservatives, in one form or another, for over century. The loss is a dramatic escalation of the crisis Boris Johnson is facing.
The post-Brexit rules of the political game supposedly decreed that North Shropshire is a Conservative shoo-in. The constituency is calculated to have voted 60% leave the EU in June 2016. North Shropshire is about as blue as it can be.
It is only two years since the Prime Minister achieved a personal political triumph, leading his party to an 80 seat majority. The authors of a definitive guide to that election put his victory down to a simple equation: BBC — Brexit, Boris and Corbyn. Of these, the most significant was Brexit.
The Prime Minister was backed by 75% of Leave voters in December 2019. He has privately spoken of the idea that ‘Keep Brexit Done’ could form part of his bid for re-election. The logic was clear. Brexit plays well with the Tory base but divides Labour. Starmer could be attacked as someone whose only ambition was to rejoin the EU. Maintaining a certain degree of tension with the EU made good political sense.
Yet that tension appears to have subsided. Noises from Downing Street about ripping up the deal signed two years ago can no longer be heard. The Government’s approach to talks over the Northern Ireland protocol appears to have softened dramatically, and this morning — slipping under the radar — there looks to be agreement with the EU on a continued role for the ECJ in managing the protocol. Brexit, it would seem, is no longer Mr Johnson’s ‘safe place.’
It is little remarked upon, but Starmer has managed to free himself of the label of ‘Remainer in chief.’ Just one in four Remain voters believe that the UK re-joining the EU in the next ten years is at all likely. For a leader whose biggest problem when first running for leader was his association with Remain, it is a remarkable fact that only one in five Leave voters think that Keir Starmer’s Labour Party want the UK to rejoin.
Labour are even beginning to weaponise Brexit. Starmer’s new line, debuted last month, is ‘Make Brexit work’. As time passes and the pandemic (hopefully) recedes, the UK’s continued stuttering economic performance will be harder to blame on lockdown.
Our research has found that, so far, voters believe Covid-19 to have been a bigger economic hit. Yet over a third of Leave voters now feel that the cost of living has been negatively affected by leaving the EU. If these problems get more acute over a winter expected to be dominated by a cost of living crisis even before Omicron hit, a public fight over the Northern Ireland Protocol may not have the intended rallying effect for the coalition the Prime Minister built in December 2019.
Reframing Brexit as a question of economic management rather than a cultural totem works well for Labour but not so well for the Prime Minister. Perhaps the biggest problem — as John Curtice has put it — is evidence that voters view Brexit and Covid as ‘two sides of the same coin’. As Brexit becomes an issue of competence like any other, it loses its value as a ‘get out of jail free’ card for the Prime Minister. In turn, it becomes harder for the Government to palm off questions about the economic cost of Brexit with formulaic odes to sovereignty and ‘happy fish.’
You might be tempted to think, even if it’s not a cure-all for his leadership, that re-upping Brexit could reinforce Boris Johnson among the electors he has perhaps most to worry about in the immediate-term this morning: his backbenches. Yet, even there, a panglossian Brexit appeal is problematic. Our survey of Members of Parliament found that — while they no doubt still believe in the overall project — when asked about sectors such as haulage and the creative industries, Conservative MPs are aware that the impact has not been universally positive for their constituents.
All this is growing evidence that, just as Labour’s acquiescence on Brexit aged badly from 2017 to 2019, Boris Johnson’s Brexit boosterism is more difficult to pull off now than it was in December 2019. Appeals to simple Brexit divisions — tempting as they might become for a beleaguered Prime Minister — are increasingly likely to feel as if they come from a different era of British politics.