Imagine for a moment that you’ve just got a new job as the new Prime Minister’s director of strategy, or chief of staff, or whatever title you like. Your brief is to plot a course to the successful re-election of the Tory party at the next election (ate unknown).
You’d immediately take a look at your political inheritance and conclude that you had a lot of problems, but two major assets. Firstly your party is still more trusted to manage the economy. Secondly, Theresa May, is, more often than not, preferred as Prime Minister in a straight choice between herself and Jeremy Corbyn.
Assuming that advantage continues for the next Prime Minister, you retain a useful political advantage – and a not insignificant hope, however bad things look, that you will ultimately win the next election. When the polls have been wrong about voting intention, historically, whether in the United Kingdom, Australia, Israel or wherever, the beneficiary of the error has been the party that leads on leadership.
So it would start alarm bells ringing that across the whole of the electorate, more people tell YouGov that they think Jeremy Hunt would make a good Prime Minister than Johnson. Hunt is preferred over Johnson by all of the following groups: Conservative voters, Labour voters, Liberal Democrat voters, Remain voters, and women. Across every age range, more people think that Hunt has what it takes to be Prime Minister than Johnson, including, most alarmingly from a Conservative perspective, the over 65s.
This should particularly worry you because bluntly most voters know just two things about Jeremy Hunt: his name, and that he is running against Boris Johnson. The really important thing about the question of “Who is the best Prime Minister?” is it is a comparative, not an absolute one. The judgement that voters will make about Johnson or Corbyn is partly about how they feel about one candidate or another in a vacuum, but also about how they feel about the choice they are making.
It’s not a coincidence that the groups that are most likely to say Hunt has what it takes to be a good Prime Minister, but that Johnson doesn’t, are the groups that move away from the Tory party in every hypothetical poll of how people would vote in an election in which a Johnson-led Tory party faced a Corbyn-led Labour party. It’s not that Liberal Democrat voters, Labour voters, Remain voters and women are particularly fond of Jeremy Hunt: it’s that these voters really don’t like Boris Johnson.
Johnson’s hope is that, if he gets to Downing Street then just as Jeremy Hunt now is the beneficiary of wider hostility towards him, Johnson himself will recover among these voters because of objections they have to Jeremy Corbyn. It’s certainly possible – but it is equally likely that the quiet hope of some in Corbyn’s inner circle, that they will recover lost ground because voters dislike Boris Johnson, will come true.
Either way, as you settled into your hypothetical job as Johnson’s chief strategist you would be forced to conclude that your party had made a conscious choice to outsource its fate to the opposition: that instead of betting on your own ability to reach out to voters, you were instead re-running the 2017 election with a better campaigner and hoping for a different result.
Your sense of unease would only grow when you looked at the fiscal promises made by both your new leader and his opponent, Jeremy Hunt. While the academic consensus on the decisions made by George Osborne and Philip Hammond is that the degree of fiscal retrenchment choked off the recovery and helped exacerbate the United Kingdom’s productivity problem, politically, the dividing line – that only the Conservatives will take the tough decisions to balance the nation’s books – continues to be a potent one. The problem for the Tory party is that while the public continues to support the idea of financial restraint in the abstract, most people are austerity Nimbys: they back the idea of cuts, but oppose any that they can see, hear or touch.
The Onward think tank has a good idea for how the Conservatives could overcome this hurdle, with a new fiscal rule that would essentially allow them to have their cake and eat it too: both committing rhetorically to the dividing lines of the past and freeing up considerable amounts of public spending room for the government. But neither candidate has embraced this rule, and instead they have simply announced a lot of spending commitments and tax cuts without any apparent idea how they will pay for them.
Jeremy Hunt in particular has engaged in some very risky rhetoric. His comments about spending £6bn on bailing out the fishing and farming industries in the event of no deal, because if there is money to bail out the bankers there is money to bail out these key industries. is a rhetorical gift to the Labour party – one that, if the Opposition is even halfway competent at the next election, we haven’t heard the last of.
Adding to the problem, Hunt’s comment that he would be willing to let businesses go bust to deliver Brexit makes it tricky, to put it mildly, to see how he – or any party in which he continues to have a major role – could plausibly fight the next election majoring on the fear of what a Corbyn government might do to the economy.
Added together, what you would conclude as you settled into your new job in Downing Street is that you might be wise to keep your LinkedIn updated.font-family:"Calibri",sans-serif;color:#333333″>