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What Boris Johnson must do next A sacrifice — not the Red Wall — will save him


February 4, 2022   5 mins

In the bowels of Westminster, if reports are to be believed, you can hear the constant rumbling of letters of no confidence being submitted to Graham Brady. At least a dozen Tory MPs have gone public with their desire to replace Boris Johnson; the national press is peppered with quotes from anonymous colleagues doing the same. Just yesterday, his policy chief of 14 years walked out, describing his behaviour as “scurrilous“.

And yet despite this growing resentment, despite the fact that a majority of voters want him to resign, there’s every chance that Johnson will cling on. Yes, if the Met Police’s soon-to-be-published report on his alleged Covid breaches reveals that he misled parliament or lied to his own backbenchers, he is probably toast. But if it gives him enough wriggle room to survive, it will take the wind out of his rivals’ sails — and the PM will live to fight another day, and another election.

On that score, things aren’t quite as a bad as they first seem for Johnson — especially when you compare his position in the polls to Keir Starmer’s: 46% of people trust neither Johnson nor Starmer to tell the truth; 26% trust Starmer more than Johnson; and 14% trust Johnson more than Starmer. Of course, there is still a gap. But even immediately after the 2019 general election, Johnson had a net-negative trustworthy rating. Nobody voted for Johnson because they thought he was an honest politician. His dishonesty is priced in.

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Similarly, voters are not overwhelmingly convinced that ditching Johnson would help the Tories: 34% think the Tories would be better off without him, compared to 48% who believe they would be doing the same or worse. Among Conservative voters in 2019, those figures are 23% and 66% respectively. Nor are voters warming to Starmer — just one poll this year has given him a net-positive approval rating. IpsosMORI, who remove the “neither” option in their satisfied/dissatisfied question, find a -15% satisfied rating for Starmer.

What about the latest YouGov poll, which gives Labour a six-point lead and finds that Starmer’s party is keeping 65% of its 2019 vote, versus just 52% for the Tories? Well, it’s worth noting that 25% of 2019 Tory voters say they “don’t know” who they’d vote for, compared to just 11% of Labour voters. This is important — “don’t knows” are excluded from headline voting intention figures, so the Conservatives could be in a stronger position than we think. One pollster which does not do this is Kantar; since the North Shropshire by-election they have, on average, found the Conservatives to be 2 points higher than other pollsters (and Labour nearly 1.7 points lower).

So, if Boris is in a stronger position than we think, how should he use it to his advantage?

Since 2019, political scientists have largely responded to this question by wheeling out hackneyed truisms about mystical Red Wall voters. These voters, we’re told, are a unique fighting force, chomping at the bit to fight Johnson’s culture war. But that’s a myth; they are not more anti-woke than Tory voters in general, nor do they differ significantly on economics.

Indeed, the original purpose of the ‘Red Wall’ moniker was that it represented seats which, given their socio-demographic make up, should have voted Tory anyway. The question was not why these seats turned Conservative in 2019 — it was why they were not Conservative long before 2019.

If he’s to succeed, Johnson needs to remember what this Conservative voting coalition cares about. At the last election, Brexit was the most important issue for voters, leave and remain. Now, only 15% of leave voters think it is one of the top three most important issues; for Remainers, that figure is 32%. Brexit will not deliver the next election for Boris — but playing on traditional Tory strengths might.

Nowhere, for instance, is the divide between Tory and Labour voters starker than in the issue of immigration and asylum. For Tory voters it is the third most important issue (at 46%), whereas for Labour it is ninth (at 8%). You would struggle to find any voter who thinks the government is doing a good job on asylum seekers crossing the Channel — even 77% of Conservative voters thinking the government has handled it badly. So if Johnson wants to shore up his Tory base, a good place to start would be putting Home Secretary Priti Patel on notice: stop the boats or lose your job.

Then there’s the economy, which is rated one of the top three issues by 55% of Tory voters, compared to 45% of Labour voters. Johnson’s coalition is sceptical of how the economic system is structured: while they do not necessarily believe in income redistribution, they do think the system is rigged in favour of the rich, and that ordinary working people do not get their fair share. Generally speaking, Conservative voters are much more Left-wing than Conservative MPs.

So perhaps more than anything, the most pressing concern for Johnson should be levelling up. After “getting Brexit done”, levelling up formed the core of the Conservatives’ offer to the electorate. Yet it took more than two years for the government to get around to defining exactly what it means, let alone release a white paper on the subject.

It’s hardly surprising that voters are not convinced: 44% think levelling up will lead to no change in spending in their area, while 18% think it will lead to lower levels. Just 7% think more money will flow as a result. The figures are broadly the same among Tory and Labour voters.

One reason for New Labour’s landslide victory in 1997 was that the public wanted more money spent on public services — 18 years of Thatcherism had left them in a perilous state. Cameronite austerity has done the same today: all the signs suggest that voters want to see a difference by the end of this parliament, otherwise they will lose faith in the government’s promises.

Despite this, the Government is caught up in arguments over funding between the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Michael Gove, who wants more money, and the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who is saying no. But levelling up — undoing decades’ worth of inequality — cannot be done on the cheap.

For Johnson, there is an obvious solution to this. If levelling up is to be his legacy, it is currently under threat from Sunak’s penny-pinching instincts. So a true government reset — one that would send a clear signal to voters about his commitment to ending the North/South divide — would see Johnson sack Sunak and replace him with a true believer in levelling up: someone like Michael Gove.

Sunak’s much-touted popularity may make Johnson think twice about this, but support for the chancellor is overstated. It is, after all, difficult to be anything but popular when you’re paying people to stay at home, or subsidising their dinners out in the middle of summer. But since the rush of cash has disappeared, his approval rating has begun to fall — from a net 43% positive in April 2020 to just 2% in December 2021.

If Johnson survives the consequences of the Met’s report, he will probably live to fight the next election. By then Partygate will have faded and the PM will need to point to a series of policy wins that his voter coalition wants: most of which involve spending more money. Now is not the time for a self-declared fiscal conservative to sit in Number 11. If Johnson wants to win in 2024, he needs to put voters’ money where his mouth is.


David Jeffery is a lecturer in British Politics at the University of Liverpool.

DrDavidJeffery

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Stephen Walshe
Stephen Walshe
2 years ago

David Jeffery is a lecturer in British Politics at the University of Liverpool. But nevertheless appears to know nothing about politics. The main blocker of Priti Patel doing anything effective against the Channel crossings has been Boris Johnson. And a free spending Michael Gove as Chancellor of the Exchequer cannot happen because (a) the era of cheap government borrowing is coming to an end, and (b) Michael Gove is as popular as polio.

Last edited 2 years ago by Stephen Walshe
Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
2 years ago
Reply to  Stephen Walshe

Hadn’t the “main blocker” been the logistical impossibility of doing very much at all, given the relative numbers of migrant boats vs Border Force vessels?

Scott S
LI
Scott S
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Weil

I would suggest the main blocker is Johnsons lack of backbone to change, or amend the HRA. Raab has ‘threatened’ to do this, but I’m not sure if this government can be trusted to deliver. We will see.

Last edited 2 years ago by Scott S
D Glover
D Glover
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Weil

No, because Border Force vessels don’t stop the boats they do intercept, they bring them here. If there were twice as many cutters it wouldn’t help.
The French could stop it easily, but they don’t feel like it, because:
a/ Macron despises Boris.
b/ Punishment for brexit.
c/ France has thousands of refugees.

Scott S
Scott S
2 years ago
Reply to  D Glover

And Macron has an election coming up.

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  D Glover

We should declare an Exclusion Zone around the UK, rather like Lady Margaret Thatcher did around the Falkland Islands. Then employ the SBS*to shoot anyone who attempts unauthorised entry.
We did this against the Argentinians so why not against Sinbad & Co?

(* Special Boat Service, part of the Royal Marines.)

D Glover
D Glover
2 years ago

Do you seriously think that any politician has the nerve to do that?
Also, the SBS are over-qualified for the task. Any soldier or sailor could, but none ever will, do that.

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  D Glover

Not today, not tomorrow, but someday.
Never say never.History has demonstrated time and again that the unthinkable can quite quickly become the reality. I do trust that I don’t have to mention any examples?

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago

I’d like to see the boats stopped but suggesting killing people is frankly idiotic. Offshore processing similar to the Australians would be my policy of choice

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SL
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I agree that killing is ‘idiotic’ but so is war and we’ve indulged in that enough recently.
However this may be portrayed as war sooner rather than later.

Unfortunately we do not have the ‘offshore’ facilities available to the Australians.

Germany in January 1919 was civilised if chastened state, fourteen years later they dramatically changed course. Are we arrogant enough to feel that that could never happen here?

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  D Glover

In fairness if I was in charge of France I’d make no effort to stop the boats either. Why would you try and prevent people who shouldn’t be in your country trying to leave your country when they have no wish to be there?

JP Martin
JP Martin
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

No, I am French and I disagree. It is absolutely in France’s interest to stop the boats. The prospect of reaching the UK is the magnet that pulls migrants from the Schengen periphery to the bottleneck at Calais. In my view, France has a responsibility to stop the boats because failure to do so is attracting this menace to French territory.

Last edited 2 years ago by JP Martin
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  JP Martin

Perhaps we should ‘outsource’ the killing of the People Smugglers to Mossad, as patently neither MI 6 nor the DGSE would be capable of such a task?

D Glover
D Glover
2 years ago

You’re losing it, Sulpicia.
The only people coming out of this well are the Poles, who are building an enormous fence along their eastern border.
If only we could festoon our beaches with barbed wire, like we did in 1940. No boats could land, and no shooting required.

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SL
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  D Glover

What about those wonderful Enid Blyton beach holidays?
No chance to throw boulders at the wretched RNLI* whilst ‘rescuing’ illegal immigrants.
If no shooting it will have to be drowning.

(*Royal National Lifeboat Institution.)

D Glover
DG
D Glover
2 years ago

Thank you. I think we all know what SBS and RNLI stand for.

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  D Glover

Oh really?
I thought that some of our American contributors may be unfamiliar with such abbreviations, but thank you for your facetious comment.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  JP Martin

Would France not be better contributing to the EUs southern border and helping the Italians and Greeks to prevent them entering in the first place, rather than trying to push them back from the Channel?

JP Martin
JM
JP Martin
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Why can’t we do both? The current situation is intolerable. Countries at the periphery (Greece, Italy, Spain, etc) should not be burdened by the pathological (suicidal, really) immigration policies of other countries (like Germany and Sweden). Non peripheral countries like Denmark and Czechia are doing their part. France needs to do the same. We must be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Last edited 2 years ago by JP Martin
Tom Watson
Tom Watson
2 years ago
Reply to  Stephen Walshe

The era of cheap borrowing’s coming to an end? I heard it here first.

Stephen Walshe
Stephen Walshe
2 years ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

Well then pay attention to the actions of the BoE, who doubled (and nearly trebled) the base rate yesterday and are expected to hike rates four more times in 2022, as well as beginning to unwind QE. 10 year gilt yields have increased sharply since the start of this year. New borrowing, and rolling over government debt, is going to become a lot more expensive.

Scott S
Scott S
2 years ago

I dont agree with this article. Inflation and rising bills will be the final nail for Johnson. Stopping illegal immigration, levelling up, getting to grips with the BBC, finishing off Brexit and of course, surviving ‘Partygate’, are all massive for this government. However, I dont think Johnson has it in him to fulfil his promises, whether it is down to Carrie and her cabal or not. Inflation and rising bills will be experienced first hand by everyone, and if Johnson hasn’t been ousted come May, he will be after the local elections.

Last edited 2 years ago by Scott S
Bruce Luffman
Bruce Luffman
2 years ago
Reply to  Scott S

The ridiculous Net Zero policy of Boris and Carrie should be dropped immediately or the Party could be toast by the next election with the huge rise in energy costs for the general public made up, as it is, with 25% going on green rubbish.
Time the truth was made clear that there is not a need for Net Zero and anyway the UK produces just 0.8% of CO2 while China and India keep churning it out without constraint.
There are costings being produced that show the cost of the USA going completely green with wind and sun and make the power connections is $480 trillion – the USA’s total annual output is only $25 trillion.
It is madness and fuelled by dishonourable scientists who are following the money.

rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago
Reply to  Bruce Luffman

As the cradle of the industrial revolution, the UK pumped huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, and it’s still there

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  rodney foy

In other words an infinitesimal amount compared to the wretched Chinese, not to mention the Indians, n’est pas?

Scott S
Scott S
2 years ago
Reply to  Bruce Luffman

Agreed, there are better ways to combat climate change. R&D, sensible carbon taxes, adaptation, prosperity and if really needed Geo-Engineering, which needs to be used with caution. However, it really does need to be a global effort. As you state, it’s no good the USA, Europe and the UK adhering to tackling climate change and the likes of Russia, India and China carrying on as normal. Net Zero in the west alone is pointless.

Last edited 2 years ago by Scott S
rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago
Reply to  Scott S

I’m not sure why you say net zero is pointless if the whole world doesn’t take part. Is it not better to limit the damage?

Scott S
Scott S
2 years ago
Reply to  rodney foy

If only half the world take part, and China Etc still carry on as before, you will just slow climate change down, and not by any meaningful amount of time regarding UN targets. So in the big scheme of things, yes it is pretty much pointless. I stand by my comment

Last edited 2 years ago by Scott S
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  Bruce Luffman

Absolutely spot on, and if this Green ‘crap’* continues we will find ourselves in the position mentioned in the in Bible** of all things!
By the way do you know what happened to UK Fracking?
I gather it has been a phenomenal success in the USA.

(* To use the words of our former leader ‘Run away’ Dave, Cameron.)
(** Isaiah 36:12.)

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
2 years ago

One of the main reasons that people in my home constituency of Bassetlaw voted for Brexit and therefore the Tories in 2019, was the closure of their coal-fired power stations. The power stations in the Trent Valley brought jobs and prosperity to the whole of Bassetlaw; the power stations in the east were fuelled by the pits in the west. Now only West Burton remains and the locals love it when it is switched back on because the wind doesn’t blow!
The people of Bassetlaw blamed the EU for the obsession with Green, and believed that Brexit and a Tory government would save their jobs. How wrong were they?!
If Johnson wants to save his own skin, his adolescent Net Zero policy is the price that he must pay.

Bob Pugh
Bob Pugh
2 years ago

I would guess the cares of the North are similar to those of most English outside the big cities:
Get on top of immigration and borders
Ease off on the costly green twattery and secure energy supplies
Make a success of Brexit
In no particular order.

Jane Watson
Jane Watson
2 years ago

Me too… I was trying to follow the logic till we got to ‘penny pinching’ Sunak and the leg up for Gove. Crumbs, the pennies are all pinched and Gove is just weird.

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  Jane Watson

After years of deceit hasn’t Gove just ‘broken cover’ and declared himself a botty-bandit?

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago
Reply to  Jane Watson

It seems Red Tories have just as tenuous an understanding of economics as plain old Reds.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago

Well, no. A lecturer in politics should know that old truism that voters speak with their hearts and vote with their purses. What a successful government must do is to make people better off, and the easiest way to do that is to reduce the tax burden, not increase it. No rise in NI; increase the bottom personal allowance band, simplify the system. All that helps the poorest and has minimal effect on the rich. Slow up the green agenda which is really hitting the poor (maybe a special green tax on Guardian subscribers?). Cut government spending, get inflation under control – and if the Governor of the Bank of England continues to look and behave so hapless, fire him and get a hard man (person) in. Look as though you care about the poor and the issues that really bother voters.
Mr Jeffery makes one very good point; the “Red Wall” seats are nothing of the sort, they are seats that ought to be, and were, Conservative anyway. It was Major, Cameron and May that lost them. Behave like a Conservative administration an they will stay in their natural voting pattern.
A northern Tory leader would also help; the party is much too focused on the south east.

Stephen Walshe
Stephen Walshe
2 years ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

Most of the Red Wall seats gained in 2019 hadn’t been Conservative since at least 1935. Traditionally Conservative northern seats lost by the Tories more recently such as in the Wirral, Tynemouth, Sheffield Hallam etc, generally stayed with Labour.

ralph bell
ralph bell
2 years ago

Like him or loth him, Gove carries far more political and intellectual weight and with a better track record then the Billionaire Richie Sunak

Graeme Laws
Graeme Laws
2 years ago
Reply to  ralph bell

And the personality of a divot.

Hosias Kermode
JH
Hosias Kermode
2 years ago
Reply to  Graeme Laws

Do we care about personality? Isn’t competence what we need?

D Glover
D Glover
2 years ago
Reply to  Hosias Kermode

You’re both right.
Competency is what we need, but most people are drawn to personality.
I knew an elderly voter who ridiculed Gove. When I asked her which of his views she disagreed with she didn’t know. It’s down to personality.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago
Reply to  ralph bell

But is a backstabber of the first order; totally without morals, full of ambition, utterly unsubtle with it. A sort of revved up Theresa May.

Jaden Johnson
Jaden Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

He chose to disagree with Cameron over Brexit. Cameron couldn’t forgive him, especially when Leave won. Moreover, Gove would have had cause to feel aggrieved at Cameron when the latter moved Gove from Education to appease Nick Clegg. So it was unsurprising that Gove felt no loyalty to Cameron.
When Gove saw Johnson up close in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, he realised that Johnson was not fit to be Prime Minister and said so. He said the same in 2019. He was right on both occasions.
And for this, Gove is saddled with the reputation of being a backstabber. I don’t see it that way.

Sarah Johnson
Sarah Johnson
2 years ago

“if the Met Police’s soon-to-be-published report on his alleged Covid breaches reveals that he misled parliament or lied to his own backbenchers, he is probably toast.“

If?! Is there anyone left who thinks there is any possibility he told the truth? Boris is a serial liar, he has definitely lied to Parliament, and over more than just the lockdown parties. The only question remaining is whether the Tory MPs will tolerate being led by a serial liar or whether they’ll display some tiny glimmer of integrity.

SIMON WOLF
SIMON WOLF
2 years ago

Daft article.One cannot level up without binning Net Carbon Zero.Gove supports strongly the Net Carbon Level Zero policy.Sunak is an ex Goldman Sachs married to the daughter of an Indian billionaire.He has real connections that matter unlike Gove’s friends from journalists many of whom may take his wife’s Sarah side of things.
There is an argument for moving Sunak into the Foreign Office and putting in someone in as the Chancellor who will reduce all the green stuff but Sunak is too well connected for him to be removed from a senior cabinet post

Geoffrey Wilson
Geoffrey Wilson
2 years ago

Not a very convincing article, particularly the conclusion – promote Gove and demote Sunak! I agree more action on immigration and on reining in tech monopolies and the super-rich would be electorally successful. But I trust Sunak’s underlying Conservative instincts a lot more than Gove’s. He is far less woke, less Zac/Carrie, in short far better.

Graeme Laws
Graeme Laws
2 years ago

A politics lecturer who believes in the magic money tree. We have inflation at around 7 per cent, the inevitable consequence of having the good old B of E print money for fun and keep interest rates far too low for far too long. We have a substantial proportion of our burgeoning national debt index linked to inflation. So Boris should now double down, borrow even more heavily, and throw the money at what, precisely. Surely even Carrie won’t make him do anything so suicidal. He got the leadership because the party thought he was the one to beat Corbyn. If the party thinks he is the one to beat Starmer next time around, they will keep him. If not, they won’t. The country does not need or want a Tory party leadership election. What I suspect the country wants is for the senior Tories to behave like grown ups for once, decide amongst themselves who is to take over the top job, and send the men in suits to no 10 to deliver the coup de grace.

Iris C
Iris C
2 years ago

The MPs who would like to have a different PM may well have been Remainers from Remainer constituencies? It would be interesting to know if that is so..
I also wonder how many advisers on the SAGE committee (Londoners) were also Remainers and liked putting a spanner in the works.
So unpatriotic!.

Mark Polden
MP
Mark Polden
2 years ago

The answer has always been a Covid Bond and an Levelling up bond. Put those at payback over 25 years at a fixed rate & the UK balance sheet becomes a lot cleaner. As a Northern Conservative we do need a new leader, Flashman has dug Boris’s grave, but that new leader cannot be Sunak the accountant but a Visionary like Penny Mordaunt or Liz Truss if Liz can take a nightclass in gravitas

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SL
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark Polden

Liz Truss! You must be joking? There is about as much chance of her demonstrating any gravitas* as there is of Boris Johnson behaving like a true Tory.

(* A good start would be to call herself Elizabeth and not the diminutive-shop girl Liz.)