A funny thing happened on the way to the cathedral for the service of thanksgiving to the Queen on Friday. It wasn’t just that Boris Johnson got booed, it was also that Sadiq Khan got cheered. GB News solemnly reported that the Mayor of London ‘received extensive cheers from members of the public who were adorned with Union Jack hats and flags’.
So who were these royalist admirers of Mr Khan and detractors of Mr Johnson? I don’t know and neither do you. Given that the mayor secured an underwhelming vote share last year and is one of Labour’s most partisan figures, it seems a stretch to think of him as a figure capable of commanding great acclaim among the monarchists of England.
Perhaps the crowds were drawn from the affluent Waitrose-going middle classes that we keep reading are tilting towards Labour and no longer have time for the Tories. Or maybe they were out and out London lefties, though that seems unlikely given the nature of the event they had assembled to support. Perhaps only a handful of the crowd were partisan booers or cheerers. Maybe the vast majority didn’t care either way. We simply can’t be sure.
That hasn’t stopped an absurd level of significance being attached to the booing of the PM. According to Nigel Farage: ‘When a Prime Minister is roundly booed on a day of national thanksgiving, you know it is all over.’
That has also been the verdict of much of the Twittersphere and the FBPE crowd who wouldn’t normally agree with anything Farage says. Labour’s Keir Starmer meanwhile said he wasn’t surprised to learn of the barracking of Johnson but identified the likely cause as government inaction on the cost of living rather than partygate shenanigans.
All of these people attach a great deal of symbolic significance to what took place. No doubt this is symbolism similar to that which was attached to the slow handclapping and booing Tony Blair got from the Women’s Institute in 2000 – an event which led many commentators to judge that Labour was losing Middle England. Or the booing George Osborne got at the Olympics in 2012, which apparently came as a nasty shock to the poor chancellor. Keen students of political history will recall that Blair went on to win a second landslide in 2001, holding almost every bellwether seat he had won in 1997 and that Osborne masterminded the Conservative election victory of 2015 which gave the party an outright majority for the first time in 23 years.
Both figures ultimately showed the toughness to keep calm and carry on despite the media hype which accompanied their public embarrassments. It turned out that neither boo-fest marked a major turning point in politics. The sledging of Boris Johnson ought to be seen in the same context. But it hasn’t because it fits neatly into a current favoured media narrative of the nation turning irrevocably against its PM. If Mr Johnson himself starts to believe this narrative – and apparently he was recently also jeered when he entered a tapas restaurant in East London – then he really will be sunk.
Undoubtedly he is no longer widely loved by the public. But as Sir Bernard Ingham remarked in a recent TV profile of Margaret Thatcher: ‘Spare me a politician who needs to be loved.’ What will save or sink Johnson is whether he comes to be respected as someone strong enough to tackle the major issues facing the country. There are certainly reasons to doubt that he will and his administration too often fails to communicate any sense of strategic direction.
But to find him getting cat-called mid-term during a cost-of-living crunch and after the long onslaught of partygate is pretty much par for the course. Does being six points behind Labour right now point to inevitable defeat in 2024? Hardly. Starmer is about as popular as a damp dishcloth and his party has failed to persuade Tory-leaners that it can be trusted with power. Even a dreadful new opinion poll for the Tories in Wakefield, where a by-election is being fought, finds that just 7 per cent of 2019 Conservative voters have switched to Starmer’s party.
In other words, most of the lost Tory voters are simply sitting it out at the moment, knowing that by-elections are not going to put Labour into power. They are there to be won back, just as Lady Thatcher won back support in the run-up to the 1987 election after trailing Neil Kinnock’s Labour badly in most polls published during the previous year.
Perhaps it will turn out that Mr Johnson cannot win them back because of his partying ways and inconsistent relationship with the truth. But nobody can be remotely sure of that two years before the next election. With no obvious successor waiting in the wings the sensible thing for Tory MPs to do is to rally around Johnson and see how he gets on for the next year or so. It really isn’t ‘all over’ for Boris Johnson. Far from it. He just encountered an occupational hazard for any governing politician who has outlived his honeymoon – getting booed by some people who don’t like him very much.
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