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14 July 2021

Boris Johnson’s Tyrone Mings problem is bigger than you think

Today’s PMQs exposed the danger of the Prime Minister's culture wars strategy.

By Stephen Bush

Most sessions of Prime Minister’s Questions are lost outside the chamber. One view of today’s exchanges is that Boris Johnson lost this one a week ago when England defeated Denmark to reach the Euros final, or a month ago when Priti Patel criticised the England team for taking a knee before matches  comments that England’s Tyrone Mings has condemned, to the government’s embarrassment. The Prime Minister did not want to disavow a successful England team, but he did not want to criticise his Home Secretary either. His reluctance to do one or the other is a good example of one of the problems with the hope some Conservatives have that they can use “culture war” dividing lines to good political effect at the next general election.

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For a dividing line to be politically effective, there has to be some reason why your opponent can’t be on the same side as you. Sometimes that can be about your opponent’s intra-party dynamics: cutting the international development budget from 0.7 per cent of GDP to 0.5 per cent is popular among many British voters, but opposition to it unites every previous Labour leader from Tony Blair to Jeremy Corbyn. The number of people who care about phytosanitary standards is vanishingly small, but opposing continued alignment with the European Union on them was an essential prerequisite to becoming Conservative leader in 2019.

Sometimes that can be about your opponent’s broader electoral coalition. If, for example, a proposition is unpopular with voters as a whole, but popular with a majority of your party’s supporters, you may have to occupy an election-losing position simply to avoid a yet bigger election defeat. (This was essentially the argument that became Labour orthodoxy in the wake of the 2019 local and European elections: yes, a Remain position was one with costs, but not having a Remain position had yet bigger ones.)

And added to that, for it to be effective, voters have to actually care about it. It doesn’t really matter that the parliamentary Conservative Party is much more opposed to the death penalty than the average Conservative voter (they split near-evenly on it), because the average Conservative voter doesn’t care all that much about the issue.

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So if you are a Tory electoral strategist, and you want the next election to be about culture wars, you need to be talking about propositions that are sufficiently popular among Labour voters that Keir Starmer has to think carefully about how to approach them. Given the shape of the two parties’ coalitions, that does mean being willing to be at odds with large numbers of working-age people, including some quite successful ones, such as members of the England football team, or the stars of a successful and popular TV show, or the members of an award-winning and well-liked band. If you don’t want to do that, then culture wars probably aren’t for you, politically speaking.