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17 November 2021

Stephen Bush

Tories fear the corruption scandal has cut through to voters. It’s worse than they think

The absence of any great political project might prove to be a bigger problem at the next election for the Conservatives than sleaze.

Which piece of digital technology was most valuable to the major political parties in the run-up to the 2019 general election? Which single innovation helped mobilise more volunteers, raise more money and target more voters than any other invention of the past half-century? The answer is “email”. Whether directly contacting activists, gently massaging interested voters or cultivating members of the parties’ donors’ clubs, it is email that drives political campaigns.

The social networks that form the tech giant Meta (Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram) were all important, but none has proved to be as consistently effective as email. Or as reliable: as one party’s digital strategist once cheerfully admitted to me, there is always a risk that “some change to suit regulators in Washington or Brussels” renders their Facebook strategy redundant.

Beyond elections, email is an underrated factor at Westminster. Although MPs and advisers will often describe WhatsApp – where most of the plotting and conniving happens – as more important, emails from constituents wield enormous influence over political fortunes.

[See also: Why the government cannot escape the Owen Paterson scandal]

In the summer, Conservative WhatsApp groups fizzed with concern about the future of Geronimo, an alpaca that had twice tested positive for bovine tuberculosis. Nervous MPs in marginal constituencies were being inundated with emails about the fate of Geronimo, leading several to ask why the alpaca couldn’t simply be given another test. It provoked a rare public intervention on WhatsApp from the chief whip, Mark Spencer, who usually sits in silent observation in the all-MPs message group. He explained that if the government gave way, then every farmer who had seen their cattle slaughtered or devalued by a positive tuberculosis test would be up in arms. It was enough to stiffen nerves, in part because many MPs had simply forgotten that the chief whip was in the group to begin with.

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Spencer hasn’t yet had to break his silence on the row over corruption and MPs’ second jobs, but he may need to soon. Tory WhatsApp groups are again buzzing with anger because of the weight of their constituents’ emails.

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Although MPs often do note the volume of the various coordinated campaigns that emerge from sites such as 38 Degrees and Change.org, finding them a useful gauge of how much an issue matters to their most motivated constituents, it is the personalised messages from people using their own words that cause experienced members to take notice. They are even more likely to get worried when those emails come from people they have never heard from before. Most MPs’ inboxes are dominated by messages from a series of devoted regular correspondents. As one Tory put it to me: “If I see a name I don’t know in an email from a constituent, I know either something bad will happen to them, or something bad is going to happen to me if I don’t reply sharpish.”

What is spooking Conservatives is that the emails they are getting about the present corruption rows are from constituents they haven’t encountered before. This seems to be a sign that the scandal has cut through with voters, just as Dominic Cummings’ Barnard Castle lockdown breach did. As if to demonstrate that there is nothing new under the sun, the academic Philip Cowley’s research into public responses to the poll tax found a similar pattern in letters to MPs – a large volume of voters, motivated to make contact for the first time, using their own words to express their anger.

[See also: Why the corruption scandal feels like 1997, with Chris Bryant]

Many Tory MPs thought that the government was mistaken in trying to rewrite the rules of the standards committee to get Owen Paterson off the hook, but almost all of them expected that any ill effects would not endure. Several went as far as predicting to me that they would “vote to get Paterson off the hook today, and then we’ll be told to vote to put him back on it when people get angry about it”. None believed that the row would last for long or cause the Tory lead in the polls to vanish; or that the Prime Minister would be forced to sign up to sweeping changes to what MPs can and cannot do.

The mood among Conservatives is often more febrile than it is with Labour members. Most Tories sit for seats they won from another party and it doesn’t take much for MPs, even those who won their seats in 2005 and are now cushioned by fat majorities, to start becoming nervous.

MPs expect to face public anger in the middle of an election cycle. The cabinet has been reassured by briefings from party strategist Isaac Levido, which show that while the last few weeks have been painful, they are far from fatal for a mid-term government.

But there is a deeper problem for Boris Johnson’s government. MPs usually face hostility over plans to reform local government finance, or to remodel the NHS, or shrink the size of the state. All these issues have made Tory mailbags swell, and none of them stopped the party being re-elected.

And so while it doesn’t worry Tory MPs that the government is unpopular, it does worry them that the cause is so trivial. No one will look back on this fortnight as a necessary ordeal for some greater design or ambitious policy programme. And in the end, this absence of any great project might prove to be a bigger problem at the next election than a sleaze scandal stretching into its third week.

[See also: What Boris Johnson’s insistence that the UK is not a “corrupt country” reveals]

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This article appears in the 17 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Democracy's last stand