Is the Boris Bump a Blip?
Is the Boris Bump a Blip?
Boris Johnson has been enjoying the honeymoon period that accompanies most new premierships. Prior to Johnson’s victory the Tories were polling in the mid-20s, essentially in a four-way split with Labour, the LibDems and Brexit Party. Having seen the Queen and collected the keys to 10 Downing Street, Boris has received a bump in the polls. The Tories are now sitting at approximately 30%, still not miles ahead of Labour but enough to cause them to hope that they have momentum.
The strategy of Johnson, guided by Dominic Cummings and other Vote Leave veterans, has been to park tanks on Nigel Farage’s lawn. Anyone who thought that Johnson was going to moderate his approach to Brexit once he won power must be disappointed, but they ought not be surprised. Johnson’s campaign nailed his colours to the No Deal mast so strongly that it will be very difficult to remove them without tearing them to shreds. This is evident from his approach to the Irish Backstop; instead of looking for a compromise, such as a time limit, he has declared it ‘undemocratic’ and must be removed. This is significant not only because this plays well with the ERG crowd, but because it also uses the language of the hardcore Leavers. The only source of legitimacy is ‘democracy’ in its least nuanced form and anything that does not fit with it must be purged. It does not matter if this jeopardises the economic wellbeing of the country, let alone the peace in Ireland. Democracy trumps all.
We shouldn’t neglect Johnson’s policies that are not directly linked to Brexit, because they also tell us where he is going in terms of electoral strategy. He is spending. Sajid Javid, the new Chancellor, will not be counting the coppers. Johnson has promised to hire 20,000 more police, £4.6 billion for state schools, promised money for the trans-Pennine rail link, and a £3.6 billion fund for ‘left behind towns’. This is not indiscriminate spending. It’s targeted at seats like Mansfield; former industrial towns that voted for Brexit, dislike modern Labour, have an acrimonious view of London, and are sympathetic to Nigel Farage. This is evident even in Johnson’s education pledge which he framed as an argument against London by highlighting the per pupil spending gap between the capital and the rest of the country. Of course, there is a national formula for funding that, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, ended the post-code lottery for education in England. But that does not matter, because the point is to build support in the ‘left behind’ parts of the country by stoking anti-London sentiments while pouring money into these ridings.
This increase in spending has been shrugged off by some Labour activists. Ellie May O’Haganin the Guardian’s politics podcast claimed that the Conservatives can never out flank Labour on public spending and austerity. This is true, but they are not banking on beating Labour’s spending pledges. So long as Labour promises to spend a penny more than the Tories, they can be accused of being the party of fiscal imprudence. The Tories are aiming to outspend the Brexit Party. The combination of spending promises, wrapped in the populist garb of anti-metropolitanism, and embracing the hardest possible Brexit are designed to unite the right.
Will it Work?
This strategy has already enjoyed some success. As mentioned, the Tories are sitting higher in the polls and this has come at the expense of the Brexit Party. Before Johnson won the premiership, Farage’s outfit was polling in the low twenties, they are now polling in the low teens. However, it is too early to celebrate. Indeed, there are reasons to be sceptical that this strategy can deliver.
Farage is not going to make it easy. He has accused Cummings of being pro-European and having ‘huge personal enmity with the true believers in Brexit’. It seems absurd, given that Cummings was the architect of Vote Leave, but it rarely pays to underestimate the narcissism of small differences. Even if the Brexit Party is reduced to 10% in the polls, this will be enough to be disruptive. Farage doesn’t need to win seats to wreck Tory plans, he just has to spoil marginal contests that the Tories need to win a majority.
The strategy will have a knock-on effect in the South. There are plenty of seats that voted Remain (or marginally for Leave) and elected Tories to parliament. The harder the line on Brexit, the more vulnerable these seats become to the Liberal Democrats. Johnson hopes to keep these voters on side by promising tax cuts that will benefit upper-middle class suburbanites. However, with Brexit now an identity issue and prudential worries about how he will fund tax cuts and spending pledges, this may be difficult.
Johnson and Cummings are running the risk of chasing votes they can’t win. The ‘Boris bump’ in the polls may be durable, but it could quickly stagnate. If support plateaus in the low thirties over the next few weeks, then success will be in doubt. This may force a rethink in Tory HQ, but they will be hugely constrained. If Johnson moderates on Brexit, then Farage will be on every media outlet that will have him crowing that the Tories are not true believers in Brexit. Johnson has survived flip-flops before, but he has not attempted one of this magnitude as PM. I doubt what credibility he has would survive.
The First Test
The by-election on 1 August in Brecon and Radnorshire is the first for Johnson’s government. This is a Tory seat, but the prognosticators have not been optimistic that they can hold it. Their candidate is embroiled in an expenses scandal and the LibDems held the seat between 1997 and 2015. They are predicted to reclaim it. This is the sort of seat that the Conservatives have to hold in a general election. Of course, we shouldn’t read too many general lessons into the particulars of a by-election. However, it is an early test of the Tory grand strategy and it will be especially interesting to see the durability of the Brexit Party in a riding that voted to leave in 2016. If the LibDems gain the seat on the back of a split between the two Leave parties, as some polling suggests, then there could be trouble for the Prime Minister if he calls an Autumn general election (or if one is forced upon him).