The departure of Boris Johnson as prime minister will reset the political debate in the UK. Labour has led in the polls partly because of Johnson. Here’s a man who voters call a clown and regard as incompetent, and who is so untrustworthy that voters in Tory marginals now dislike him more than the country at large.
Labour knows how to beat Johnson. It has been doing so for months. Labour has enjoyed a consistent poll lead over the Tories, and leads as the best party to manage the economy, while Keir Starmer leads Johnson as the public’s preferred prime minister. This wasn’t the case under Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn, and it took a few years until David Cameron achieved the same as Conservative leader.
Most of these Labour leads are due to Johnson himself and his departure will remove a key driver of support for Starmer’s party. But the problems for the Conservatives don’t start and end at No 10. The Tories have a brand problem too.
Since becoming Prime Minister, Johnson has progressively associated the Conservative brand with his own. In marginal seats, working-class voters were not backing the Conservatives – they were backing Boris Johnson. When Johnson became toxic, so did the Tory brand.
Johnson’s focus on “levelling up” – as a vote-winner at least – is one that demands higher public spending over tax cuts. In other words, it entails a less Thatcherite approach to the economy, one that heterodox Johnson has been happy to embrace.
But the post-Johnson Tory party may struggle to adjust to this new normal, where the debt and the deficit are trumped by the cost of living as the defining issue. It may be easy to assume that a Cameron-style leader, such as Jeremy Hunt, Rishi Sunak or Sajid Javid will give the Tories the reset they clearly need. But on the economy the old ways of thinking have gone. From 2010-15, voters grudgingly accepted austerity. Now, the country has shifted leftwards on this issue and views the economy in a new light, one unfavourable to traditional fiscal conservatism (as the response to Sunak’s Spring Statement earlier this year showed).
Johnson will soon be gone – a muted end to a bombastic, embarrassing episode in British political life. But Johnson will not take the Conservatives’ brand problems with him. Those problems will persist, in part because of him and in part, too, because the country has changed. Cameronism 2.0 won’t necessarily cut it.