View all newsletters
Sign up to our newsletters

Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. The Staggers
19 August 2019updated 23 Jun 2021 7:45am

Jeremy Corbyn knows how he wants to attack Boris Johnson – will it work?

By Catherine McKinnell

Is Boris Johnson the British right’s Richard Nixon, a politician who successfully reconfigured his party’s electoral base, allowing it to dominate politics for the next quarter-century? Or is he their Hillary Clinton, who came closer to winning Texas than any Democrat for 20 years – but also became the first Democrat in more than three decades to lose Wisconsin, thereby losing the presidential election to Donald Trump?

The answer, of course, is that we don’t know. We do know that, with its new Brexit approach, the Conservative Party has made a big bet that it will lose less to the Liberal Democrats and the SNP than it could gain from the Labour Party.

There is a big stretch of England and Wales that, demographically, “ought” to be more fertile hunting ground for the Tory party than it actually is: running from the north of Wales through Merseyside, Greater Manchester and Yorkshire are what would be close-fought marginals if they were in the south of England. But the problem the Conservatives face is a sort of cultural halitosis – a deeply ingrained belief held by many people in these parts of the country that the Tory party is not for them, and as such these are safe Labour seats.

We forget, because she did such a bad job of doing anything with the asset, that one of the reasons why May was, on paper, a good candidate for the Conservative Party is that she was both significantly less posh than David Cameron, and perceived as being such. The problem is that May was unable to use the foot in the door that that gave her to win over significant chunks of the Labour vote in these areas. Or at least she was unable to do so at a rate that made up for what she lost at the other end of the Tory party’s electoral coalition.

In Johnson, the Conservative Party has a better campaigner and a political operator. His Downing Street operation is pumping out all the right messages – on crime, the NHS and Brexit – to be within a fighting chance of reversing that long-standing underperformance. But the flipside of that is that he is a candidate who, for reasons of biography and simply due to the sound of his voice, is less well-placed than May to make a breakthrough in the seats she failed to win.

So if the Johnson gamble blows up in his face at an election, it will be in part be because that cultural halitosis surrounding the Tory party and poshness meant that he was unable to make significant breakthroughs in the likes of Bishop Auckland while still losing seats to the Liberal Democrats in the likes of Cheltenham.

That’s why Jeremy Corbyn’s attack lines on Boris Johnson – wheeled out in his big speech today, which offered us a preview of Labour’s preferred approach to an autumn election – are worth watching. Corbyn is talking up Johnson’s membership of the elite and explicitly linking Johnson in with the Tory party and with wealth (of the nine mentions of Boris Johnson in Corbyn’s speech, all were paired with a reference to his Conservativeness and his poshness).

Will it work? The opportunity for the Tories is that voters tend to prioritise their referendum vote over the party political vote. But the source of comfort for Labour is that the Conservatives couldn’t make a breakthrough with a better-placed candidate and a worst campaign, and may find that they are similarly disappointed by a worse-positioned candidate fighting a better one.

Content from our partners
Unlocking the potential of a national asset, St Pancras International
Time for Labour to turn the tide on children’s health
How can we deliver better rail journeys for customers?

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.