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6 September 2019

Boris Johnson may stand to gain from his photo-op with the police

The Conservative Party still retains the ability to do well where it matters, even when the news turns against it. 

By Stephen Bush

In just one week, Boris Johnson has lost sixteen votes in the House of Lords, five votes in the House of Commons and his brother. Jo Johnson has announced he will stand down as he cannot reconcile the twin imperatives of “family loyalty and the national interest” – as a polite and dignified a way of possible of saying that you can’t reconcile fraternal affection with your opinion of someone’s political strategy, but still a bruising end to a difficult week for Johnson. 

Rightly or wrongly, Downing Street believes that an election sooner rather than later is in their interests, and the bad news for him is that the argument within the Opposition about when to go for an election increasingly looks to be being won by those who want an election after the extension has been reached. 

Tough times for Johnson? It depends on where you look. Don’t forget that the places that really matter as far as elections are concerned, in no particular order, are the six and ten o’clock news, the brief newsbreaks on music radio, Facebook and the BBC’s homepage. 

On the six and the ten, and on music radio, the personally damaging story about his brother is leading – but on the BBC homepage, a picture of Boris Johnson, the Downing Street lectern, a big picture of the police and his pledge to take us out of the EU come what may got top billing. And the most widely travelling political story on Facebook looks to be Jacob Rees-Mogg’s slouching, a story with the potential to reinforce the perceptions of a weird-and-posh party that David Cameron worked so hard to erase.

So it’s mixed. But the important thing about all of those stories is they show an executive using (sometimes to self-destructive effect) the powers that come with the premiership outside of election time. While there is a fierce row about Johnson’s politicization of the police, Downing Street will judge, rightly in my view, that they gain more from the photograph than they lose from the circumstances of it. 

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Elsewhere, Robert Jenrick is announcing a cash bounty for 100 marginal constituencies and with the full might of Whitehall’s press officers, social media channels and advertising budget behind him. Elections between the government and the opposition parties are by definition asymmetrical. That the opposition is increasingly united in believing the best way forward is a long two month period, in which the benefits of incumbency can be used in full, means that the Conservative party still retains the ability to do well where it matters, even when the news in the bubble turns against it.