The moral case for Boris Johnson resigning from office is an overwhelming one. The Metropolitan Police have concluded that he broke his own lockdown laws and Johnson is not challenging that judgement. Further fixed penalty notices will almost certainly follow and the Prime Minister’s assurances to parliament over his behaviour lack credibility.
There is a separate question as to whether removing Johnson is the sensible political move for the Conservative Party. I think it is (the public’s anger is strong and I do not think it will disappear) and, in any event, the moral case should come first but it is worth examining the argument that he is uniquely well-placed to win the next general election for the Conservatives.
The starting point is the contention – which I find persuasive – that British politics is realigning. Whereas once our voting behaviour was largely determined by economic security (those with greater economic security tended to vote right, those with less tended to vote left), there is a long-term trend that cultural issues have become increasingly important. Factors such as the density of the population, racial diversity and educational qualifications can tell us more about how an area will vote than average incomes.
This trend applies not just to the UK but in most other developed nations. Voters who once supported social democratic parties of the left now vote for Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Johnson because these politicians better represent their cultural values. For all his faults, Johnson is not Trump or Le Pen but in both the 2016 Brexit referendum and the 2019 election he appealed to the same types of voters. It is striking that polling in the UK suggests that both Leave voters and Conservative voters favour Le Pen over Emmanuel Macron.
A political divide along these lines works rather well for the Conservatives under a first-past-the-post system because of how the electorate is distributed. Not only is the culturally liberal vote split but it is concentrated in the cities, resulting in large non-Conservative majorities, but with the new Conservative electorate more efficiently distributed elsewhere. The 2016 referendum saw a Leave-Remain split of 52 per cent to 48 per cent but if that was translated into parliamentary constituencies the estimated result would have been 410 constituencies to 240 (or 63-37 in percentage terms).
If one assumes that the realignment analysis is correct, there are certain qualities that the leader of the right should ideally possess. Brexit has been the big divisive issue so strong credentials on this subject is essential. More widely, our leader would need to be able to articulate the values of patriotic and nationalist voters who are uncomfortable with rapid social change. There is a lack of economic coherence within the new coalition of Conservative support so some flexibility here is helpful, with a willingness to spend taxpayers’ money on popular cases. And a large personality is an advantage. The objective is to get people who have not traditionally voted Conservative to do so. They are more likely to do this if they are thinking of an individual leader than the party as a whole.
This is essentially what Johnson offered the country in 2019 – Get Brexit Done, political incorrectness, more nurses and police officers, Vote Boris. The Red Wall fell and the Conservatives won an 80-seat majority.
The Tory difficulty is that it is not clear that anyone else can replicate this. There are plenty of pro-Brexit culture warriors but the internal economic arguments are generally between those who worry about high deficits versus those who worry about high taxes. There are few prominent Conservatives enthusiastic for the higher spending that many new Tory voters support. Nor is there a candidate who can match Johnson’s charisma and celebrity.
That is the political case for Johnson – he is the only Conservative politician with the requisite attributes to exploit the realignment of British politics. The problem is that it appears that his behaviour over partygate has cost him this ability.
Johnson’s popularity has taken a hit over the Downing Street parties with the country as a whole but the group that appears to have reacted most adversely are the voters who switched to the Tories in 2019. I asked the pollster James Johnson of JL Partners where the Conservatives were losing support. “Tory poll leakage is coming primarily from the defectors in the north and Midlands (and people who look like them demographically in the south)”, he told me. “Southern Tories might be soft and not turn out but we have not seen them defect yet.”
Perhaps it is not altogether surprising. When asked, these are voters who lean left on questions as to whether there is one law for the rich and one for the poor. This has held them back from voting Conservative in the past. The Prime Minister’s behaviour has confirmed their old prejudices.
What does Boris Johnson do? My suspicion is that he will try to open up some old dividing lines. The Rwanda asylum policy fits the bill and the Queen’s Speech is likely to reopen the Brexit issue by giving the government legislative powers to rewrite the Northern Ireland protocol unilaterally, in breach of international law.
What happens next may be reckless, unedifying and ultimately unsuccessful but if, when in a corner, your pitch is that you are the candidate best placed to lead a populist party, it is probably a good idea to get more populist.