Johnson looks worn down, but the ‘Boris effect’ may yet return | Boris Johnson

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People do not change their minds about politics very often, for two reasons: they don’t have to, and they don’t want to. Elections are infrequent. Opinions, once acquired, can be left undisturbed for years at a time. And that makes it a wrench to discard them. Switching sides is uncomfortable, going against the grain of loyalties that have formed over a lifetime, or been handed down across generations.

Every Tory MP who won a seat in a once staunchly Labour area at the last election has a story to tell of constituents who backed Boris Johnson, but suffered at the thought of dead grandparents, proud stalwarts of the old industrial left, turning in their graves.

That dramatic result now feels remote, like everything else that happened before the pandemic. The era of pre-coronavirus politics is cut off from the present by the scale of the emergency. Johnson’s inglorious handling of the crisis has checked his former swagger. He looks worn down. The 80-seat majority that looked insuperable in January has proved vulnerable to multi-pronged backbench rebellion. Labour’s opinion poll share has recovered to parity with the Tories. Keir Starmer is rated as a better potential prime minister than the incumbent.

When so much has changed in under a year, it is tempting to think that nothing has stayed the same. That view is especially alluring to those of us who think Johnson lacks the judgment and discipline to govern well. The belief that he should fail begets the expectation that he will. Relish at being proved right every time he messes up can obscure sight of his strengths, and the underlying solidity of his position.

The apparent shallowness of Johnson’s character does not make his support superficial. It is true that there is no coherent doctrine behind the tedious exuberance and affected dishevelment, which irritates people who think votes should be earned with something more serious than bluff and rakish charm. It also baffles many on the left that generations of visceral hostility to arrogant, posh Tories in the old Labour heartlands should be dissolved by a Latin-spouting old Etonian.

There was an unquantifiable element of electoral alchemy in the “Boris effect” at the last election, but it was used to exploit profound cultural changes. The strategy was not that different to the approach by Theresa May two years earlier – attempting to turn frustrations that had been expressed as a vote for Brexit into support for a Tory prime minister who promised to satisfy that demand, both in the narrow sense of leaving the EU and the wider context of economic and social neglect.

The spectacular unravelling of May’s campaign and her lost majority meant that little attention was paid to the increase in Conservative vote share in many Labour strongholds. Mansfield went Tory for the first time since the seat’s creation in 1885. But such gains were few, and offset by losses in places such as Croydon and Canterbury.

The 2017 result confirmed that a strategy of targeting the “red wall”, if competently applied by a charismatic leader, could work. Something analogous had also happened in Scotland two years earlier, when dozens of previously safe Labour seats were captured by Scottish nationalists. That result also expressed longstanding disaffection with a party that voters felt had stopped listening, and that talked down to them in the soulless and alien dialect of Westminster.

Happily for the SNP, those voters had an option for deserting Labour that didn’t require overcoming the old allergy to Tories. Their English counterparts only suspended their aversion in order to get Brexit done. It was a contract, not a new relationship.

But the Scottish experience suggests that Starmer will struggle to rekindle the old flame. Labour’s bickering factions blame the disaster on each other. The problems began long before Jeremy Corbyn became leader, but defeated MPs say he brought a new toxin to the doorstep – a patriotism deficit. Johnson was able to woo voters who feared Labour was trying to put a man in Downing Street who felt solidarity with Britain’s enemies more than pride in its armed forces.

A large portion of Labour members and a caucus of its MPs vigorously reject that analysis. Starmer sees an electoral imperative to repudiate Corbynism, but doesn’t know how to communicate that to voters without sinking the party into civil war.

The Tories hardly present a united front. The financial cost of the pandemic demands painful choices that Johnson is ill-equipped to make. He wants to buy loyalty from his new voters with local investment but not to raise taxes, which is what the Treasury says is required.

Brexit, with or without a deal, adds to the cost without bringing any meaningful dividend. There will be no post-rapture in January to match the promises that were made by Eurosceptic evangelists. But Labour has no position on Europe, the pandemic, or much else, except to say it would be better if we weren’t in this position.

The wheels of Westminster spin in a frenzy, but that is not the pace at which minds change. The volatility is irrelevant to the way most lives are lived. The disparity feels all the more extreme in lockdown, which plays tricks with our sense of time and limits our range of contacts.

It is easy to look back over the pandemic period and conclude that an unfit prime minister has burned through his full supply of political capital, blowing all the credit he earned last December. The “Boris effect” that gave the Tories power is surely degraded by the tawdry spectacle of him failing in office. Can it be replenished?

The election that put Johnson in Downing Street also revealed new cultural contours in English politics – the effect of Labour loyalty eroding for decades. It is not clear how Starmer undoes the damage. The Tories still have an 80-seat majority with no general election due before 2024.

The prime minister sometimes looks as if he is nearing the end of the road, but the facts of parliamentary arithmetic and the political calendar tell a different story. The Johnson years have only just begun.

• Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist

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Source: The Guardian
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