When those words and phrases of the year lists come out there is bound to be a place in them for ‘the new normal’. It is a phrase that invites us to expect that short-term shifts in how things are will become new long-term equilibriums. A socially-distanced lifestyle; governments being able to borrow vast sums very cheaply; face masks on public transport: these are just a few of the things that have in 2020 been labelled ‘the new normal’. For Brits who craves some stability in turbulent times it can be a comforting concept.
For many Conservative politicians, ‘the new normal’ seems to have begun a year or so ago – when Boris Johnson became Prime Minister and turned Theresa May’s horrific opinion poll ratings into something much more appetising.
Since then the Conservative poll score has typically been well into the forties, with Labour at least ten points behind. Crucially, that pattern was borne out in December’s general election when 107 new Conservative MPs were elected – not just as victors in ‘Red Wall’ seats lost by Labour, but also as replacements for dozens of anti-Brexit Tory incumbents who chose to step down or were kicked out.
It would be wrong to categorise these newbies as forming a homogenous parliamentary reception class that is still messing about with political playdough. Some are battle hardened political streetfighters. But many aren’t. And neither, apparently, are many Tory MPs who have been around for rather longer and who have been exceptionally quick to bank opinion poll leads as a divine right, despite not really understanding how their new king has brought them about.
So when a squall blew up around Dominic Cummings and it quickly emerged that Boris Johnson had decided to keep him, rather than holding the line, dozens of Tory MPs gazed at polls showing a narrowing of the Conservative lead and went rogue. They behaved not with the esprit de corps one would expect of a recently victorious army, but with the mutinous intent of those who felt at least semi-detached from the mission and the command structure.
A few weeks on, with the Tory poll rating having stabilised at around 43 per cent but with Labour having crept into the mid-thirties, there are stirrings of unrest again. When a longstanding anti-Johnson commentator such as the Times’s Rachel Sylvester suggests this modest trend shows Keir Starmer has become established as the prime minister in waiting, it seems that there are actually Conservative MPs who believe that thought and are intimidated by it.
This is deeply unimpressive on the part of Tory MPs. The reality is this: there is absolutely nothing normal about any governing party, let alone one that has been in power for ten years, being comfortably ahead in the opinion polls. MPs in a governing party who come to expect it bring little to the legion and are not worth their salt.
Indeed, there is an argument for saying that governing parties which prioritise opinion poll leads are not really fit to exercise power. Take the example of Tony Blair’s first-term which, aside from a modest Tory surge during the fuel dispute in the year 2000, was a polling cakewalk for Labour.
Given that it brought into office the Clintonian notion of the permanent campaign – of setting out to win a popularity contest every day – that is hardly surprising. But it left Blair sensing that opportunities to bring about long-term change had been squandered. As he noted in his memoirs, after a second landslide victory was duly delivered: ‘My impatience with the scale and ambition of our reform was now carved in granite. I was going to do it, come hell or high water.’
How different from the first-term conduct of Margaret Thatcher, who in the face of a mutinous Cabinet, dire poll ratings and huge pressure to ditch her entire economic strategy, told the 1980 Tory conference: ‘You turn if you want to, the lady’s not for turning.’
Boris Johnson has so far flitted between first term Thatcher and first term Blair in his approach. He has stood firm on keeping Cummings and fended off pressure to extend the post-Brexit transition period. But there have also been several chaotic policy U-turns made in response to general clamour and with the apparent motive of not being seen to do something unpopular. The Marcus Rashford free school meals furore is but the most recent example.
This suggests that the Rt Hon member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip is himself a sucker for the new normal and must soon come to terms with the fact that if you are ahead in the polls as a PM heading into the grind of mid-term then you are probably doing something wrong. Or at least failing to do a lot of things right.
Given the very difficult economic outlook and the inevitable unpalatable decisions on taxation and some spending programmes that lie ahead (yes, Rishi Sunak will have to ask people to start paying for stuff soon), it is frankly unthinkable that the Government will be ahead in the polls for much longer anyway.
So allowing some to make interim poll ratings the key measure of the condition of an administration with a majority of 80 and with 163 more seats than the official opposition is daft.
The entire Conservative parliamentary party needs to steel itself for a long grind and to focus on implementing the key aspects of its mission: concluding the Brexit saga, post-Covid economic bounce-back, levelling up. The toughest stuff – possibly including abandoning the ‘triple lock’ on the uprating of pensions, we now read – is coming up shortly.
I sense that there are enough wise heads among the Conservative Westminster cohort to calm the ranks of novices and the naturally nervous. One change Johnson should bring about without delay is to appoint one as a party chairman charged with instilling some of the esprit de corps that has gone AWOL and doing some good old-fashioned pro-Government Rottweilering on the airwaves. David Davis might do the job well, so among the next generation down would James Cleverly.
The existing Tory co-chairmen – the businessman Ben Elliot and the ultra-low profile minister without portfolio Amanda Milling – are not cut out for the task in hand. In politics the new normal is going to be very much like the old normal: far from plain sailing.
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