Will the floods cost Boris Johnson the election?

After months of carefully wooing voters in Labour heartlands, it has taken only six days to render the Conservative message hollow.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

“Where’ve you been?” was the question put to Boris Johnson today on his visit to Yorkshire, six days after the region was ravaged by serious flooding.

“You took your time,” said another resident as Johnson popped up in Fishlake, a name now familiar nation-wide as one of the villages worst hit by the flooding: the place where a man knee-deep in water in his living room says he has been surviving there for days without heating or electricity, because he doesn’t want to abandon his two dogs to go to the refuge centre; the place where a woman broke down on our TV screens, saying she has simultaneously lost her home and her livelihood. Her insurance doesn’t cover flooding, and she’s worried about how she’ll survive.

It has been the top item on the news agenda for days now, and the simple narrative is that people are suffering, that communities have been amazing, but that the response has been inadequate.

Last night, added into the equation was the appearance of Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson in the area, listening to locals’ concerns and outlining their own parties’ plans for flood defences and emergency response to extreme weather conditions. Pundits kept saying last night that the floods had become “political”, but no one was stating exactly what was political.

Until today, when locals said it themselves, no one bluntly stated the political reality. So here it is. From the second Boris Johnson took office, he has been leading a carefully-targeted campaign to woo exactly the kind of voters who live in Fishlake. It’s the well-known electoral gamble that Johnson embarked on even before the election was official: unite the Leave vote behind the Conservatives, even though that risks losing seats in the south of England and in Scotland, and pick up seats even in the Labour heartlands in the north. Win those Labour voters who supported Leave with a simple “get Brexit done” message, bolstered by pledges to boost funding for the NHS, schools and the police. And target these voters specially, with a raft of carefully-targeted government spending pledges that happen to fall on key Conservative targets.

After months of carefully wooing the people of Labour heartlands with the message that the Conservatives understand their needs and interests best, it has taken only six days to render that message hollow.

As the Prime Minister sat down with residents today, a visibly distressed local reminded him of his recent towns fund pledges that he “promised us months ago”: an example of the kind of policy designed to woo this voter, but instead exacerbating her distress. She hasn’t seen the new funding for the town yet (many of Johnson’s pledges from the summer could never be implemented until after the election), and asks if the new measures he promises are “a lie again”.

Of course, this is the stuff that can’t really be polled. No one with any decency can go to a refuge centre and ask someone who has lost everything: “So, how will you be casting your ballot come 12 December?” We don’t know if parts of the country unaffected by the flooding are noticing; as fewer people get their news from one uniform news source, we don’t know how concerned people are by the main news event in the country, and we don’t know if they are apportioning blame to the Conservatives, who have presided over flooding preparations while in government, for the scale of the harm.

But the anger that we’ve seen today from those affected by the floods suggests it may well cut through.

Boris Johnson and his team have been so busy targeting these people with words, so busy honing a message about Brexit and parroting the things that ordinary people are most concerned about, they were slow to act on the one thing that ordinary people care most, and care desperately, about in flood-ravaged Yorkshire. And actions, as we know, speak louder than words.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman