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.