Andy Maciver: Only a fool would write off Boris

Writing newspaper articles can be a perilous task. What you are reading now was supplied to The Herald yesterday, in order to ensure that it can be laid out in the print edition of the paper. Today is Tuesday, so if anything of significance happened during the latter part of Monday, you’ll know about it now, but I won’t have known about it when I wrote this.

For me and my fellow Herald columnists, that’s usually a perfectly manageable risk. However, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s world is turning so rapidly at the moment that writing about him comes with a “correct at the time of writing” watermark.

Lenin said that there are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen, and although I’m not from the side of politics that is generally comfortable living by that man’s word, in this case he has it dead on.

Over the course of the weekend alone, Mr Johnson lost his chief Brexit negotiator and Cabinet minister Sir David Frost, and had to remove the Cabinet Secretary Simon Case from his role as the investigator of the Downing Street parties, because his office was found to have hosted one of them, and endured the publication of more photographs questioning his alleged rule-breaking during last Christmas’s lockdown.

That is before we list the twists and turns of Omicron – a Covid variant the severity (or otherwise) of which we’re still unsure, but which is spreading so quickly that our leaders are trying to counter by making almost day-by-day changes to the public restrictions.

The loss of a 200-year Tory seat with a majority of over 20,000, just over four days ago, and a 100-member rebellion a couple of days before that, seem a distant memory.

This is a Prime Minister under pressure – of that there is no doubt. Isn’t it curious that the man who won a landslide victory only two years ago is under such strain? That the most electorally successful Tory politician since Margaret Thatcher is suffering from the same internal strife after two years that she did after ten? That the man responsible for handing seat after seat after seat to a group of MPs in the so-called Red Wall would engender such disloyalty from those very MPs?

Well, in truth, it isn’t actually as remarkable as it might first seem. There are two major weaknesses baked into Boris Johnson’s majority that were always likely to rear their head during times of strife.

The first is that the 2019 election was a perfect storm for the Tory party. They ran an extremely astute campaign which managed to encourage very disparate groups of voters to stand under the same umbrella.

Nigel Farage effectively stood aside as Mr Johnson pledged to “Get Brexit Done”. For the same reason, Labour Brexiteers loaned their votes to Mr Johnson. And Remainers remained. Repelled by the thought of the anti-EU, anti-capitalist Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street, they stuck with the devil they knew. As did almost anyone with an eye on the country’s economic prospects. And of course in Scotland, his anti-referendum stance kept the core unionist vote intact.

These are millions, upon millions of votes, the foundation for most of which has already gone. Brexit is done. Corbyn is done. Those voters have much more to think about now. In short, they have another option now.

The second weakness is, I suppose, linked to the first. There is no ideological or philosophical compass guiding this government. There is no such thing as Johnsonism, and if I were forced to identify one I’d have to say it is levelling-up, an enigmatic concept still searching for a definition.

Indeed, almost every faction of MPs seem to have a gripe about something. Some are troubled by the public expenditure being channelled to levelling-up. Some are troubled by the approach to migrants and foreign aid. Some are troubled by the handling of Covid. Some are troubled by governance.

All are looking to Mr Johnson and demanding more. And that is because the relationship between Boris Johnson and his MPs is ultimately a transactional one.

Their loyalty is not to Boris Johnson’s plan, nor to Boris Johnson the man. It is a much more superficial loyalty, based wholly on Boris Johnson as a proven electoral winner. It is a dusting of snow on the hills, easily swept away by a shaft of sunlight or a breath of wind.

Nonetheless, all of that being said, I am not about to join the hordes of people who are currently telling us with great certainty that Mr Johnson is a dead man walking, that one more hiccup will be the end of him, and that he’ll not be Prime Minister heading into the next General Election.

I do wonder whether these so-called expert observers have been expertly observing Mr Johnson over the last 15 years. If they had been, they would know that writing him off is a fool’s game.

The man who twice won London, who won the Brexit referendum, who came back from the supposedly career-ending 2016 leadership election, who won a landslide and won the north, and who ‘got Brexit done’, neither of which his predecessors were able to do, is not a man to be written off.

This is not a prediction that he will rise again and win another election in 2023 or 2024. Mr Johnson resists political gravity, but he does not defy it. His poll ratings are as shaky as they have ever been, unrecognisable from the astonishing support he received in the wake of the UK’s global vaccine leadership this time last year.

Poor polling, including in those Red Wall seats with their twitchy MPs, combined with a Labour leader in Sir Keir Starmer who has a foundation of credibility absent from his predecessor, has Mr Johnson in hot water. No doubt.

No, rather than a prediction of yet another Boris bounce back, this is simply a perspective that thinks the best indication of the future is the past.

He could be gone in six days, or six week, or six months. Or it could be another six years, after another landslide.

There are many chapters yet to be written in the Boris Johnson story.

• Andy Maciver is Director of Message Matters

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of the Herald.

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