by Alan Wager and Anand Menon
Friday, 17
December 2021
Analysis
09:27

Brexit can no longer save Boris

The PM's defeat in Shropshire North shows that the UK has moved on from 2016
by Alan Wager and Anand Menon
Down and out in North Shropshire. Credit: Getty

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.

Join the discussion


To join the discussion, get the free daily email and read more articles like this, sign up.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
44 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Philip L
Philip L
6 months ago

What a load of waffle. This has nothing to do with the Northern Ireland protocol or cost of living and everything to do with the fact the Conservative party has become unrecognisable.
Honestly, that’s it.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
6 months ago
Reply to  Philip L

If die hard libertarian or cultural Conservatives, or whoever, wish to believe that, their loss. It isn’t even what a lot of Tory MPs think.
The rapid fall from grace, having achieved little, of Johnson’s government has nothing at all then to do with chaos, incompetence and hypocrisy at the centre of government? Replacing gas boilers and the like might well in future be extremely unpopular, but it isn’t affecting people right now.

Saul D
Saul D
6 months ago

My guess is that the result had nothing to do with Brexit, and everything to do with the return of Covid restrictions and the potential ruination of another Christmas. Trust has been undermined. Vaccines were supposed to set us free, but haven’t.
So now the experts need to make their case and have it reviewed in public against robust counter-arguments, in order to re-establish public trust in their recommendations, and to establish if we really are pursuing the best strategies against this disease.

Philip L
Philip L
6 months ago
Reply to  Saul D

Am beginning to realise that all the commentors in our media cannot wrap their heads around the fact that the little people have unorthodox views and will even vote strategically to express them (I doubt even one of the Lib Dem voters knew who the Lib Dem candidate was, let alone the Lib Dem leader). Thus they invent, conflate and print denigratory nonsense the whole time – systemic racism, the cost of living, you know the drill – to explain it.
This election result must make a lot of them uneasy, in that it confirms their worst fears: a thumping majority want a mainstream, old fashioned, freedom respecting, right wing party back in charge.

Andrew D
Andrew D
6 months ago
Reply to  Philip L

‘a thumping majority want a mainstream, old fashioned, freedom respecting, right wing party back in charge’
Er, so they voted LibDem?

Fran Martinez
Fran Martinez
6 months ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Well the Lib Dems seem to be the only party that really opposed the Vaccine Passport Law. Look up how each MP voted and you will get your answer.

Andrew D
Andrew D
6 months ago
Reply to  Fran Martinez

Sad to say that I get little sense of widespread objection to vaccine passports. Hope I’m wrong.

Michael O'Donnell
Michael O'Donnell
6 months ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Indeed. I’m not sure that they are an issue at all for most people. I think that the majority of people understand that it’s a difficult issue but are prepared to put the public good over individual preferences, even if the the imperative for Covid restrictions isn’t as clear as it once was. The truth to me seems to be that people think that Boris has lost the plot and are now seriously looking for an alternative. The whole Tory rebellion over passports is just another sideshow that we can all do without. I don’t know about everyone else but I’m far more concerned by an increasingly belligerent Sino-Russian block and the risks to World peace that presents.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
6 months ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Well, yes, because they wanted to send a message to Johnson. I hope he heard it.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
6 months ago
Reply to  Andrew D

The self delusion on display on this site is sometimes extraordinary!

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
6 months ago
Reply to  Philip L

Most people, myself included, couldn’t pick out Ed Davey in a line-up of two.

George Wells
George Wells
6 months ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

Who?

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
6 months ago
Reply to  Philip L

What psephological data or analysis do you have to suggest that? So they voted for the opposite!?

Matt M
Matt M
6 months ago

People are p***** off about Covid and restrictions coming back. Angry about the Paterson affair and the Christmas party story. Wary of the inflation rate. Incensed about the failure to stop the dinghies in Kent.
It is also the middle of the parliament which usually comes with falling popularity and by-election kickings.
Come the next election, the picture will be very different. Hopefully the pandemic (or at least the restrictions, masks and so on) will be a thing of the past, inflation returned to target and something will have been done about those s***ing boats.
Also focus will turn to Starmer and his record. I suspect a career as the leading QC fighting government attempts to stop bogus asylum seekers and other illegal immigrants will make rich pickings for the Tory attack machine.
Sure Brexit will fall in salience over time as is natural but the divide between Labour and Leave voters (and a great many Remain voters) on issues like immigration, crime, patriotism, wokeness and the rest will endure. I see no evidence that Kier Starmer has the imagination or will to bridge it.

Last edited 6 months ago by Matt M
Robert Routledge
Robert Routledge
6 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

And in the inevitable coalition with the English hating Scottish Nationalists

Mel Shaw
Mel Shaw
6 months ago

My problem with the government is that they simply don’t deliver. They were going to do something about immigration, crime, the police, the human rights act, the economy, levelling up and other things I’ve forgotten (and so have they). Here we are two years in and they are still talking about doing those things. There is no delivery. Covid is not an excuse. There are plenty of ministers who could have been pushing things forward. And there is no getting away from Boris’s lack of leadership. Without leadership and delivery the tory majority will disappear as quickly as it was won.

Matt M
Matt M
6 months ago
Reply to  Mel Shaw

I agree with this. Very frustrating!

JILL HUDSON
JILL HUDSON
6 months ago
Reply to  Mel Shaw

I share your view absolutely. What a waste of opportunity to change all those things for the better. And how foolish to throw away those newly gained Red Wall seats. I am greatly saddened.

Andrew D
Andrew D
6 months ago

Support for Brexit and support for the Conservatives are not one and the same. Brexit had little or nothing to do with the result.

Mel Shaw
Mel Shaw
6 months ago

You were doing quite well until you proposed PR as the solution. Do you really see a Labour, Lib Dem, Green SNP government as the answer? Because that is what you would get.

Matt M
Matt M
6 months ago
Reply to  Mel Shaw

And we had a referendum on this question. You need at least a generation to pass before you ask it again.

(And don’t give me “but that was an alternative vote etc”. That won’t wash. The public debate was “stick with the traditional system or change it?)

Last edited 6 months ago by Matt M
Barrie Clements
Barrie Clements
6 months ago

Does anybody really believe that faced with the possibility of a Labour government at a future election this seat won’t go back to being conservative. It’s a mid term protest vote.

Matt M
Matt M
6 months ago

A lot of diehard Remoaners look at the last few years and think:

“It’s all a con job! These stupid, insular, working class dupes have been sold Brexit by Boris and Dominic Cummings and the Sun and the Russians etc. But one day the scales will drop from the voters eyes and they will see Boris as we see him – a bombastic fraud. Then the world will fall back into place, we will rejoin the EU, Kier Starmer will be PM and we will get our old prestige back.”

So they mistake a mid-term kicking for a seismic shift. It is a bit embarrassing really.

Jane Watson
Jane Watson
6 months ago

Compromise is a slippery beast, no thanks. When I think of PR I always remember Italian politics, and the fact they have a sex workers’ MP or whatever.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
6 months ago

I’ll Wager (geddit) with anyone who wants to take the bet, the Tories will win a bigger majority at the next election than 2019. With or without Johnson at the helm.

Philip L
Philip L
6 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Can you explain your thinking?

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
6 months ago
Reply to  Philip L

My opinion is based not on my personal views, but on a bog standard 4 decade+ observation of the political landscape, starting with 1979 when I first followed Thatcher coming to power in the broadsheets. I have seen the SDP come and go, first tear chunks out of Labour, then subsumed into the Lib Dems. I have seen absolutely huge leads mid-term for the opposition, especially Labour, all disappear in a puff of smoke when the real election comes round.
My distilled observation is that just one single condition has to exist for a long standing incumbent to be ousted – the UK population has to want the change. And the conditions are simply not present for that change to happen.
More debatably, I believe the conditions for the incumbent to extend their lead are all present. They are:
(i) No consistent continuous lead in the polls for the main oppo since 2019, a precondition for winning.
(ii) the main oppo are pretty much completely out of step with the entire 60+ demographic, somewhat out of step with 40-to-60s, and increasingly out of step with the 18-25s but for very different reasons. The oppo is only in line with the 25-to-40s group, and this group is totally politically fickle and will promiscuously move round between the parties of the left, crucially in the actual election itself. Trends all strengthening.
(iii) The Tories (and people on the left will hate me for saying this) are likely to emerge out of the covid mess smelling of roses. Why covid behaves as it does is still not understood globally no matter the opinions of swathes of experts and non-experts, but the holistic effect in reaction by different countries is completely visible. Covid demands a fine line walking between caution to prevent widespread illness and not going bust. A clue comes from that aggregating numbers out of Sweden. Also from various states in the US who implemented very different lockdown strategies, to almost no discernible effect. For reasons not totally clear, the UK has continually been at the cutting edge of the covid maelstrom, but everything indicates to me that when the real numbers start emerging in a couple of years, the UK will be seen to have walked that fine line very well.
(iv) I think we are on the verge of a K shaped global recovery – those countries like the UK and US who bore the brunt with absolutely ramping growth for 2 or 3 years, and those who locked down over-aggressively in big economic trouble. There is a lag before the costs of the lockdowns eventually start to bite (and this will lead to a very long global recession eventually), but if the UK is in the middle of a jobs, wages, growth and inflation boom when the Tories go to the polls in 18 months, the electorate will be suitably grateful and they will win big.
(v) The boundary changes are likely to gift the Tories another 20 odd seats. The SNP have stitched up Scotland for the foreseeable. The little left parties have a penchant for siphoning off votes from the Labour and this trend is getting stronger amongst young voters. I expect the Greens to gain 5%+, all at Labour’s cost.

Journos and media academics will pepper the universe with opinion pieces why the left is finally on its way, but journos and media academics have a living to earn. I wouldn’t necessarily take what they have to say over seriously.

Last edited 6 months ago by Prashant Kotak
Matt M
Matt M
6 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Very interesting. On point ii) i’m intrigued by the alignment of 18-25 year olds. What’s the story?

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
6 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

The indications are they are increasingly tacking right, unlike the preceding couple of generations, but not in a ‘traditional’ tory way. They will either change the tory party in their own image sometime in the future, or the right will fragment like the left.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
6 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

That is a very good point; the young are not generally left in a socialist way; they are not right in a Conservative way either. They want a new form of politics, which may all be rubbish (some of us are so old we’ve seen all this before, eg Blair, Wilson) but it does mean there voting behaviour is very difficult to predict.

Andy Griffiths
Andy Griffiths
6 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

OK. Why?

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
6 months ago
Reply to  Andy Griffiths

Please see my response to PW

Matt M
Matt M
6 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Maybe people are blowing the government’s current difficulties out of proportion.
Tory poll numbers fall when Covid cases are high and rise when cases drop. Or maybe when restrictions are introduced/ lifted. So I expect that after the Omicron wave, the Conservative lead will re-emerge.
YouGov numbers:
8 Jul 20 – Con +10% – 596 cases (7 day average) – lockdown over
5 Nov 20 – Con -5% – 22.4k cases – lockdown back
27 Jan 21 – Con -4% – 25.5k cases
5 May 21 – Con +10% – 2k cases – lockdown eased
20 Jul 21 – Con +4% – 44k cases – post-restrictions surge
25 Aug 21 – Con +8% – 32.5k cases – surge fades
22 Nov 21 – Con +1% – 44k cases – restrictions back
16 Dec 21 – Con -5% – 63k cases – lockdown imminent?

Last edited 6 months ago by Matt M
Philip L
Philip L
6 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

Interesting figures, thank you. Though I suspect – given the interviews with locals – the reality is less to do with the perception of covid being out of control and more the fact the government is.

Matt M
Matt M
6 months ago
Reply to  Philip L

Thanks
I’m sure that is right but I think that people pay less attention or give more leeway to government incompetence when cases are low and there is no prospect of further restrictions. Would the no10 party story have captured the imagination in the same way if cases were low and falling? I don’t think so.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
6 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

Although in FTPT elections the aggregate national percentages are often less important that how certain policies/perceptions play in key constitutencies and areas. Labour have been and are being burnt in Scotland because of this despite the fact they still have reasonable residual support. Which is why this by-election is worrying to Tory MPs in the traditional shires.

Last edited 6 months ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Matt M
Matt M
6 months ago

Sure, there may be underlying reasons why their support is dropping in the shires (“sleaze”, drift, inflation, planning, green obsession, no answer on illegal immigration etc). But my point is that even action on these issues won’t cut through while covid is front and centre of people’s minds.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
6 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

With Johnson, very little chance, none I think. With new “clean” leadership they will have a better chance. But do not ignore the possibility of Starmer seizing the middle (and moral) ground. He is playing a clever game

Graeme Laws
Graeme Laws
6 months ago

The great lieutenant Callaghan nailed it. Opinions, he said, are like fundamental orifices. Everybody has one.

George Knight
George Knight
6 months ago

Mid term blues combined with the Paterson mess and then the Christmas party fracas are wonderful meat for the media who can feast on this for a while. All of which drives sentiment against the government. If this situation continues then the Tories will surely suffer further agony.
The immediate priority is to drive through quick solutions for handling Covid so that the country can return to something resembling normal, albeit that Covid might rear its head on a regular basis going forward.
Now though is a good time for the Tories to hit the pause button in order to reflect and then be able to articulate a simple strategy to drive the economy that will resonate and calm some of the nerves that are much in evidence today.

Last edited 6 months ago by George Knight
Snake Oil Cat
Snake Oil Cat
6 months ago

Brexit and Covid are two sides of the same coin. In fact, the lockdown is an extreme form of Brexit. Both are about increasing the power of the state and reducing individual freedom.
Brexit stops us going to Europe to live and work. Lockdown makes it difficult and expensive to go for a brief visit.
Brexit forces millions of people to engage with customs and immigration related bureaucracy that they could previously ignore. Lockdown imposes reams of detailed and unfamiliar regulations on us all.
Brexit turns millions of people, who were once proud citizens of the place where they live, into subjects of an oppressive and dysfunctional bureaucracy. Lockdown extends this hostile environment to cover white British citizens who have not complied with the latest vaccination or testing regime.
Lockdown has taught Boris’s natural supporters how he has made the other half live. “Somewheres” whose family and friends are all in the same town now know what it is like when they might as well be in another country. Home Office bureaucrats all have personal experience of the adequacy or otherwise of “modern methods of communication” as a substitute for physical family relationships.
The voters of North Shropshire were showing what they think about living in a dictatorship.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
6 months ago

Why do we care about Boris? Is an alternative PM going to lead us on to great things? People are bored with his style of entertainment. Maybe we need a Macron.

Kerie Receveur
Kerie Receveur
6 months ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

We need a Zemmour.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
6 months ago
Reply to  Kerie Receveur

With his life-support system too?