Asking people how they plan to vote in a general election that is years away is a bit like asking people whether they’d rather drink a glass of red wine or a mug of hot tea. The question is situation-specific: the answer hinges on whether they are at the beginning or end of the day, if they have had a hard time at the office, and what they are expecting to eat with their beverage of choice, if anything at all.
Part of the art of politics is to ensure that when the next election rolls around, voters are more inclined to choose wine over tea, or vice versa. So, in a sense, it didn’t matter all that much when the polls suggested the Conservatives were on course to lose their majority; and it doesn’t matter now that they suggest the party’s is moving towards re-election. The next general election is not until 2024. Britain was not going to have an election during a global pandemic and is not going to have one in the midst of a successful vaccine roll-out either.
Polls matter, however, because they help to set the mood at Westminster. When the Conservative government’s strategy for tackling coronavirus was obviously failing, Tory MPs found it easy to blame Boris Johnson, their notoriously detail-resistant leader. Now that the distribution of new vaccines is proceeding at pace, it is once again considered a strength that the Prime Minister doesn’t sweat the small stuff. The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, is experiencing the reverse problem. The same people who used to describe Starmer as strategically astute are now complaining that he is overly cautious and risk-averse.
The stock of the two leaders is in flux because of the vaccine. It has unquestionably improved Johnson’s standing in the country, with his – and the government’s – ratings increasing in recent weeks. More importantly, it has brought Johnson back to level-pegging with Starmer on leadership approval. This is usually a better predictor of general election outcomes than voting intention, so the change is a blow for Starmer and the Labour Party.
Johnson’s vaccine bounce shapes how Labour is portrayed. Since becoming Labour leader, Starmer has taken great pains to meet with grandees and veterans from the party’s past. He has long privately believed that one of the most damaging electoral legacies of the party’s civil war has been the loss of institutional memory and he sees it as his priority to reverse the trend. Gordon Brown and several back-room aides from Labour’s last suc-cessful assault on Downing Street have spoken to the shadow cabinet and advised Starmer publicly.
Yet Starmer is also well aware that the best way to keep people on side is to make them feel consulted and loved. It’s not always clear who is being invited into the inner circle to give serious counsel and who is there so that their bruised ego can be soothed. One of the big beasts reported to be advising Starmer has joked that they aren’t entirely sure if they are wanted for their status as a respected veteran or because they are “a dangerous grandee” in need of hand-holding.
Whichever is closer to the truth, Starmer’s recent meetings with Peter Mandelson were reported as a sign of a party in trouble, as opposed to a continuation of business as usual. That is because a combination of boredom among political journalists and the vaccine bounce means that “Labour in crisis” is the story everyone wants to tell. Some even believe it.
One school of thought, both inside and outside Labour, is that, having overseen one of the worst recorded per capita death rates in the world, Johnson should not be enjoying any kind of bounce – he should be miles behind a resurgent Labour Party. The comparison they make is with the 2008 financial crisis, which seriously damaged Gordon Brown’s government and put David Cameron on course for Downing Street. They may be right, and the narrative they are selling has plenty of willing buyers at Westminster. But it is far from clear that voters, in the UK or anywhere, regard the coronavirus pandemic as analogous to the financial crisis.
In the wake of the global financial crash, incumbent governments, whether on the right or the left, lost power, often in landslide defeats. But the reaction to the pandemic among voters has largely been to rally around their leaders. Johnson’s handling of the pandemic has been poor by global standards, but so too has that of many European leaders. And yet most of Europe’s incumbents are likewise enjoying a comfortable lead in the opinion polls, in many cases larger than Johnson’s.
An aversion to Johnson and his works is common among the commentariat, even those who notionally share his political positions – and so any event that doesn’t end with the government floundering is seen as a mystifying crisis for Johnson’s opponents. But look across Europe or, indeed, at recent political history and this narrative is less convincing.
In a time when incumbents around the world are benefiting from a global desire to give them the benefit of the doubt, and after an unquestionably successful vaccine roll-out, shouldn’t Johnson be polling significantly better against Starmer than Theresa May did against Jeremy Corbyn in the weeks after the Grenfell Tower fire? When almost every incumbent leader is comfortably ahead of their nearest rivals, shouldn’t the Conservatives be out of sight?
It may be, of course, that the global story of the moment is opposition parties failing to seize their moment. However, it could equally be that, even in an environment that favours him, Boris Johnson cannot quite open up a decisive lead over Keir Starmer.
This article appears in the 17 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, War against truth