The British political and media establishment had Remain winning the Brexit referendum at a canter, Hillary Clinton as US president by a landslide, Change UK actually changing the UK and a ‘Government of National Unity’ emerging in the Commons after Boris Johnson removed the whip from dozens of Tory grandees. All completely wrong.
What does conventional wisdom tell us about British politics over the past three months? That Boris Johnson and the Conservatives are in huge trouble, of course.
Boris has been seen to bungle the coronavirus pandemic, and so will be blamed for the looming economic meltdown. The Prime Minister’s personal ratings have slumped. Meanwhile, Sir Keir Starmer has proved to be a credible new leader for Labour and the poll gap between the parties is already tumbling – down from 15 points to about five. Momentum is all running Labour’s way.
While this analysis stitches together fragments of stuff which has actually happened to other predicted developments, it gives a highly selective account and is liable to be completely wrong once again. A more persuasive reading of the last few months by far is that this is likely to be as good as it gets for Starmer. Let’s take another look at those component parts.
The British state making bad mistakes in handling a pandemic clearly doesn’t reflect well on the Government, but it will come as no surprise to the electorate. From Matt Hancock’s comical officiousness to the too-clever-by-half sages of SAGE being late to lockdown and ministers failing to sanction from the word go bleeding obvious common sense measures like containing and testing people arriving from abroad, this is Gilbert and Sullivan stuff. These are enduring national stereotypes, as much in the price of British public life as was the German state handling its outbreak with ruthless Teutonic efficiency.
Will normal people really think that Labour’s ‘forensic’ Sir Keir would have conjured up ‘a plan’ that would have turned our response into the envy of the world? Oh, do leave it out.
About the one thing the Government has done impressively is to construct an economic support package that has kept businesses alive and protected household living standards. Hence the Tories still have a strong lead on the economy. When the downturn bites in the autumn it is far more likely voters will look to the traditional party of economic competence to see them through than turn to the one that has totalled the public finances every time it has got behind the fiscal wheel or held the national monetary gearstick in its sweaty palm.
And remember too that the Prime Minister, that larger than life bundle of optimism and action who swept the board in December, almost went into permanent flatline himself just a couple of months ago, leaving Starmer playing parliamentary Robot Wars with Dominic Raab for weeks on end. Certainly Johnson was on poor form against him in their first few duels, but the old bounce is now starting to return.
And while Starmer is seen as possible prime minister material (something I predicted in a piece for Coffee House on the eve of his leadership), his party is still widely regarded as hopelessly unfit for power and lacking a strong team of performers.
So a Government that has had to face the most appalling public health crisis in living memory – one that almost killed the PM and has brought dire economic impacts – has sustained a poll lead over an opposition that has 163 fewer MPs, has been all but wiped out in its former stronghold of Scotland and has no senior or charismatic figure who can appeal to its lost working class voters. And this Government is about to restore its right to decide the timing of the next election too. What do people imagine will happen once the pandemic has passed? I’ll tell you what: the Tories will have countless issues on which to ram home their political advantage over Starmer.
While they have largely cured their own traditional weakness on the NHS and will continue pouring love and money into it, Labour’s woes on the cultural issues that are rising in salience grow ever more acute.
Starmer is the former DPP who was in charge for some of the time that the criminal justice system was betraying vulnerable working class girls being raped by gangs of Pakistani heritage men. He is the ex-human rights lawyer who grew rich on the back of a legal framework that prioritised the ‘rights’ of Islamist terror suspects over public protection. He is the leader of a party that wants to continue and extend free movement and to scrap detention of migrants who claim asylum when they are apprehended. He is the man who ‘took a knee’ to Black Lives Matter. And he is the Brexit-blocker in chief.
And you should hear about the others. The ‘rising stars’ in the Labour firmament: statue-topplers who make David Lammy look like a reassuring statesman by comparison. Even the sloppy Joes who run Tory central office these days should be able to compile a dossier about them that will turn grey hairs white among Labour’s lost electoral legions.
Labour’s recently published review into its catastrophic election defeat notes that there are another 58 seats that it still holds in its old ‘Red Wall’ towns that are vulnerable to a further Conservative advance. It rather blithely asserts that: ‘Labour needs to build a winning coalition of voters which spans generations, geographies and outlooks.’
Look around you. Is there any sign of older provincial voters being successfully wooed by young woke metropolitans who consider them to be reactionary old racists and who are continually upping the intensity of cultural attacks? Quite the contrary.
Is Starmer such a brilliant salesman that he will be able to create a political prospectus that credibly encompasses higher immigration and lower immigration, tougher anti-terror laws and gentler ones, greater sway to right activists while simultaneously watching out for the left-behind working class communities that he already tried to stitch-up over Brexit? It is a task that would have proved too much even for his mentor Tony Blair.
We should be focusing not on whether Boris Johnson can win again for the Tories but whether he knows what to do with a political position so strong that it easily survived the chaotic mishandling of a pandemic, his own enforced disappearance from public life for several weeks and a subsequent low-wattage period.
Starmer, on the other hand, is stuffed.
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