That vast battalion of pinko pundits who confidently expected Boris Johnson to get a drubbing in last week’s elections has already reached a consensus on why it is that he did so well and Keir Starmer so badly.
To summarise: the Prime Minister is a lucky general who benefited from a ‘vaccine bounce’. He will fall straight back down to earth once this current crisis is over. The electorate will soon start concentrating on what really matters, like the cost of his curtains.
In the long list of reasons why Labour keeps losing, its tendency to underestimate and misunderstand its opponents should figure large. Because the truth of the matter is that Johnson has not ‘got lucky’. The reality is that the PM succeeded in dominating the real centre ground of British politics, the territory that Sir Keith Joseph once called ‘the common ground’.
Opponents from left and right who seek to portray Johnson as some kind of extremist – whether a rampant Little Englander nationalist or a woolly lefty who will cause ruination through spending on green initiatives – only make themselves look out of touch.
Let’s look for starters at the issues the electorate considers the most important facing the country. The latest YouGov tracker, published this week, shows that health and the economy are the top two, both mentioned by around 50 per cent of respondents.
Brexit, which was top at Christmas on 61 per cent is now down to joint fourth, along with immigration and law and order.
What is the third top issue now and on a rising trend? The environment, mentioned by 30 per cent. Johnson has been all over it for weeks with repeated waves of green pledges and initiatives, much to the disgruntlement of some Tory right-wingers.
Housing and education are the only other issues to get into double figures in percentage terms as topics mentioned by voters as being in their own top three. Tax, which Richard Tice and Reform UK have sought to major on, is marooned down on five per cent, explaining a lot about why that party failed to achieve lift-off last week.
So how do the two main parties match up on the big issues? On the question of which would be best at handling the economy, YouGov finds the Tories led Labour by 38 to 17 as of the end of April. Rishi Sunak led his shadow – then Anneliese Dodds – by an even more crushing 39 to nine in a question about who would make the best chancellor. These findings alone should be sufficient to quell the excitement of those currently heralding a possible Labour advance in a ‘Blue Wall’ of Home Counties commuter belt seats where money talks.
On Labour’s traditional trump card of the NHS, it leads by 11 points, 36 to 25, perhaps bolstered by the row over nurses’ pay. But housing is the only other significant issue upon which YouGov finds a Labour lead, a modest one of 29 to 21. On Brexit, the Tories have a crushing 34 to 12 advantage, on law and order it is 35 to 17, on immigration and asylum 30 to 18.
Whether he ends up delivering or not, Johnson is proving a consummate communicator. Most of us know he intends to spend a lot more on the NHS. His and Sunak’s ultra-Keynesian response to the economic shock of Covid annoyed the Tory right but seems to have worked. His plans to do bold things on the environmental front have likewised annoyed the Tory right – and he showed great personal determination to ‘get Brexit done’, to the fury of the liberal left.
Given that the PM also has populist, right-of-centre instincts on fighting crime – and a Home Secretary happy to have the courage of her convictions and then some – this is another area in which it is hard to envisage Labour making any progress.
There are only two apparent chinks in his political armour. On the mid-ranking issue of housing there must be scope for a big and eye-catching Labour offer that he will struggle to match, given the grip that the major developers appear to have over the Conservatives.
On immigration, the PM’s liberal instincts and policies to increase migration from India and among the Hong Kong Chinese are likely to test public patience. But this area can hardly be exploited by any of the opposition parties to the left of him as all are in the grip of ‘no borders’ fanatics. Could Tice’s irregulars come to be seen as credible hawks on this subject? That is unlikely, unless Nigel Farage decides to return to the fray.
Finally, we have the grimmest match-up of all for Labour, that between Johnson and Starmer. The Labour leader went into net negative territory in February; his monthly tracker has been a tale of woe ever since. His net score hit -13 in March, -24 in April and is now a source of black humour among Labour MPs, having plunged to -48. Johnson’s ratings have, by contrast, improved markedly over the same timeframe, going from net -16 at the turn of the year to break even now.
Yet another YouGov tracker question provides perhaps the biggest clue about Labour’s woes: does the party have a clear sense of purpose? Last June, Labour scored a pretty poor net -17 on that one. Now it is net -49. Some 63 per cent of voters say Labour lacks a clear sense of purpose, with only 14 per cent saying it has one.
That is what happens when your leader cannot communicate a narrative and is up against the master story-teller of this political era. Do not underestimate Boris Johnson.
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