As a new father, Boris Johnson already had reason to lose sleep – and the polls over the weekend won’t have helped the situation. With Labour now enjoying leads over the Conservatives in successive polls – with one showing its biggest lead since 2014 – many in British politics will be asking: is this a turning point for Boris Johnson’s government, or just another talking point?
Let us first consider the issue of the reported Christmas parties in Downing Street and other Whitehall departments last December. Over the last few months Labour has been slowly reducing the Conservatives’ lead in the polls. There is no doubt that, since the story broke, this trend has accelerated, and Labour now find itself ahead. But the drama is unlikely to have a lasting effect.
As with Dominic Cummings visiting Barnard Castle, it may produce a lot of noise, discussion and debate. But ultimately, very few will enter the voting booth at the next general election in 2024 and say “I am not voting Conservative any more because they had that Christmas party in 2020 and then lied about it”.
Consider the following thought experiment: if the furore over Dominic Cummings’s trip to Barnard Castle in April 2020 had never happened, would the polls be significantly different today? It is very difficult to argue that they would, and while the issue of Christmas parties may be a bigger deal than Barnard Castle in the eyes of voters, it does not appear big enough on its own to make a lasting difference.
“On its own” is, however, the crucial point here.
In terms of the cumulative effect on voting intention, this latest scandal could indeed be significant, when combined with Barnard Castle, the Owen Paterson fiasco, the Downing Street refurbishments and subsequent fine for the Tory party, and so on. More voters may start to believe that the government does not act fairly, that it does not play by its own rules and that it is dishonest. That then has the potential to become a damaging narrative that may prove difficult to shake off, even with a majority of 80 and (potentially) a few years left to go until the next general election.
In the short to medium term, the biggest risk for the government may well concern the attitudes the public will have to the new Covid rules and restrictions that are introduced.
Controlling the spread of the Omicron variant depends, at least in part, on buy-in from both MPs and the British public. If recent controversies mean Conservative back benchers no longer wish to support Johnson in his approach and, at the same time, many members of the public feel motivated or even emboldened to ignore the rules, particularly around Christmas, then the Prime Minister faces a serious problem.
One cancelled Christmas may be regarded as bad luck, two looks like carelessness – and the Prime Minister will be aware of how damaging this could be.
Ultimately these are very unusual times, and nobody knows how the polls will play out. But there may be many more sleepless nights ahead for Boris Johnson – and not all of them thanks to his newborn.
Joe Twyman is the co-founder of the public opinion consultancy Deltapoll
[see also: Will “Plan B” stop another lockdown?]