Boris Johnson may well have to go. His own proximity to a party in his private flat in Downing Street on 13 November 2020 – the very day he fired Dominic Cummings – could be the thing that does for him. Were the police to decide that this event was a criminal breach and hand out a fixed penalty notice to the Prime Minister, it is inconceivable that Tory MPs would fail to remove him from office.
But we do not have to await a police report to spot that the Tory party as a whole, Johnson included, has committed a far bigger crime: the political sin of neglecting and disrespecting the Red Wall voters who gave it a landslide majority in 2019. A seemingly epoch-making political realignment that could have kept the Tories in power for several elections ahead is now close to being altogether squandered.
Johnson himself has failed, time and again, to prioritise sorting out the Channel migration shambles – the issue that culturally conservative Leave voters tell pollsters they care about more than any other. Since the departure of Cummings, he has also surrounded himself with a cabal of posh, rich Home Counties-based types who are close to his wife and push a policy agenda antithetical to the spirit of the Red Wall, as documented expertly by James Heale in The Spectator.
So net zero has trumped asylum reform. There has been no concerted fightback against the march of the left through public institutions. And on trans issues, Stonewall appears to have more influence over the PM than does traditional conservative thought. Set against all this, the somewhat underpowered Levelling-Up plan set out in the Commons by Michael Gove does not cut the mustard.
Worse still, there is no Red Wall champion who could take over from Johnson. Instead Red Wall voters are being treated to a parade of conventional Tory types attempting to reassert their dominance over direction of the party – Tom from Tonbridge, Mrs May of Maidenhead, Jeremy from Surrey.
One is put in mind of that TV programme in which families that have been overspending on groceries are invited to blind test more downmarket brands and switch to improve their fortunes. Sometimes they take to the new offering, but other times they curl their faces up in disdain at the flavours they are being invited to ingest. The latter is what is happening among the dispossessed parliamentary establishment of the Tory party. They are spitting out the Red Wall as if it were budget brand cardboard muesli.
Whoever replaces Johnson – or even if he carries on himself – the Conservative cultural connection with the Red Wall seems likely to carry on ebbing away. Perhaps that is because staggeringly few Conservative MPs ever understood quite how or why they won in 2019. After all, with very few exceptions they did not arrive at Brexit under their own steam but were bullied into it by Farage and Ukip, all but blind to the way uncontrolled immigration had impacted negatively on working class lives.
The Tory smart set under Cameron and Osborne believed the pursuit of hegemony meant courting socially liberal reformist types rather than ‘banging on’ about Europe, immigration or tougher law and order.
There is little reason to suppose that the two most likely successors to Johnson – Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss – can appeal to the Red Wall as the larger-than-life, dynamic Johnson persona did in 2019. The former at least has the gifts of fluency and intellect but is an ex-banker married into a family of billionaires. Libertarian Liz from Leeds is meanwhile courting the Thatcherite right who want shrink-the-state policies that run counter to the communal instincts of older voters in Red Wall towns.
The Conservatives still ought to win the next election. Their main opponent is, after all, an underwhelming Labour party that is starting off with only 200 seats to its name. But the prospects of them holding much of the Red Wall or securing another strong majority are waning fast.
Thanks to their complacency, Keir Starmer is scoring points with Red Wallers by switching to a more conventional class-based politics. In PMQs this week, he hammered away on the cost-of-living crisis, arguing that the Tories were targeting ordinary working people with tax rises, rather than fat cat corporations. In Rachel Reeves he at last has a shadow chancellor who radiates competence and moderation.
A Tory party that has proved too posh to push back on the culture war – that has itself taken half a knee to BLM, sat on the fence on cervices, been lily-livered in defence of statues and allowed mass migration to continue without having a clue where to house everyone – has let Labour off the hook with voters who felt betrayed by it.
Only a Johnson back in vintage swashbuckling form and with good advisors by his side has the capacity to turn it round. And that seems like a very distant prospect indeed.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.