The old saw that “oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them” has to be wrong. If it were true, why does Boris Johnson’s venal government remain the prohibitive favourite to win a fifth consecutive Conservative victory at the next general election?
Last week, it sought to abolish the system for enforcing ethical standards at Westminster in order to protect a leading Brexiteer MP who pocketed £500,000 while improperly promoting the interests of his private sector paymasters. It proposed to replace that system with a committee controlled by Tory placemen. It reportedly threatened to withhold public funds from the constituencies of MPs unwilling to back the government, and yet 13 brave Conservative back benchers refused, unlike 248 of their spineless colleagues, to support its tawdry scheme. It so vilified the commissioner for parliamentary standards, Kathryn Stone, who exposed Owen Paterson’s transgressions that she now requires police protection.
During the ensuing uproar, the UK’s cowardly leader – the man ultimately responsible for the whole debacle – all but vanished, sending out hapless cabinet colleagues such as Kwasi Kwarteng and George Eustice to defend the indefensible in his place.
The Paterson scandal is just the latest outrage foisted on Britain by its morally bankrupt Prime Minister and his government. Johnson portrays himself as the champion of ordinary people, and as the scourge of the “metropolitan elite”, but he readily accepts luxurious holidays financed by multimillionaire backers, and a refurbishment of his Downing Street flat worth more than most people’s salaries. He routinely dispenses peerages, jobs and other favours to donors, mates and Russians – ignoring the warnings of the House of Lords Appointments Committee. He refuses to sanction ministers found guilty of egregious misconduct, prompting his adviser on ministerial standards to resign.
He leads a government that channels lucrative contracts to its cronies; that seeks to renege on an international treaty it solemnly signed scarcely a year before; that bypasses, sidelines and treats with contempt the parliament whose sovereignty it boasts of restoring; that systematically seeks to cow, neuter or pack with stooges any independent entity that it cannot control – the judiciary, the BBC, the Electoral Commission, Ofcom, Ofqual, museum boards, art galleries, universities. It is even seeking to curb the public’s right to protest.
I visited the William Hogarth exhibition at Tate Britain over the weekend and thought what fun the 18th-century satirist would have had with the corrupt cabal now running our country – and running it into the ground. Yet the latest Opinium poll still puts the Conservatives a point ahead of Labour with 37 per cent support, more than enough to win another term given the fragmented state of the opposition – considering Labour’s loss of its Scottish heartlands, and the way the party’s support is concentrated so heavily in city seats.
Johnson’s remarkable buoyancy is due in part to the post-Brexit tribalism that he so assiduously fosters and exploits with the help of the sycophantic right-wing press (the Telegraph’s coverage of the Paterson scandal, led by an obsequious interview with the man himself, was a particular disgrace).
The Prime Minister’s critics are all embittered Remoaners, or so he claims. He alone is implementing the “will of the people”. He picks constant fights with the EU and France to galvanise his supporters, aggravates the bitter divisions caused by the 2016 referendum, and inflames the Europhobia that glues together his improbable coalition of older, crusty Home County Tories and disgruntled blue-collar workers from the north and Midlands. Thus he will shortly risk an unwinnable trade war with Europe by invoking Article 16 to ditch the Northern Ireland customs checks that he so cynically agreed in order to “get Brexit done”.
But Johnson’s buoyancy is also a damning indictment of an opposition that is singularly failing to offer voters a plausible or attractive alternative.
It is not enough for Labour to rage and fulminate at the Tories’ “sleaze” and “corruption”. The party has to end its endless internal feuding. It has to win back public trust. It has to produce a compelling new vision for the UK’s future. In the riveting BBC series Blair and Brown: The New Labour Revolution, Tony Blair astutely observes: “The single most important thing in politics is always to have the initiative, to have the agenda – the dominating agenda – to be the one you set”. I struggle to think of a single example of Labour having achieved that since Johnson took office.
Labour must also recognise the plain but uncomfortable truth that it has only ever won elections by appealing to centrist voters. It will only do so again when, for example, Keir Starmer can unequivocally condemn the harassment of former Sussex University philosophy professor Kathleen Stock, the blocking of motorways by climate extremists and “cancel culture” in its entirety. Rightly or wrongly, issues such as those repel the mass of British voters and are electoral gifts to the Tories.
Even that will not suffice if Labour is to have any chance of regaining power at the next election. It is plain as day, our first-past-the-post electoral system being what it is, that it must agree some sort of electoral pact with the Liberal Democrats, Greens and probably Plaid Cymru too.
In Turkey, Hungary and Israel, opposition parties have set aside their very considerable differences and united against governments that they regard as a threat to democracy. It is way past time that Britain’s progressive parties follow suit before Johnson’s increasingly autocratic government turns this country into a banana republic. There is no other plausible way of defeating the Conservatives in 2023 or 2024.
When even John Major, a former Conservative prime minister, denounces Johnson’s government as “politically corrupt”, and refuses to say that he would vote for it, there is plainly a hefty majority of voters – including millions of disaffected Tory moderates – that are repelled by it. Given a rare chance to unite behind a single opposition candidate in June’s Chesham and Amersham by-election, that majority seized the chance to assert itself, turning a 16,223 Tory majority into an 8,028 Lib Dem one.
It’s a crying shame that Labour and the Lib Dems cannot agree to field a single anti-corruption candidate to fight the forthcoming by-election in the North Shropshire constituency where Paterson had a 23,000 majority. In the present atmosphere there would be an outside chance of Johnson’s rotten government suffering an even more spectacular defeat.