Boris Johnson’s political recovery in the last couple of months has been nothing short of remarkable. Not that he was ever down and out, of course, but having got a Brexit deal that both Farage and Starmer backed, followed by the success of the vaccine rollout, the Prime Minister once again looks unassailable.
As for the Labour leader, things look much less rosy. But what hasn't been said in the criticism of Starmer is that what has mostly caused the leader of the opposition’s dip is not his own incompetence but the Prime Minister’s recent good form. This has made me realise something about Boris: he bears a lot of comparison with one former prime minister many wouldn’t immediately reach for – Tony Blair. And in the years ahead, Boris’ premiership could soon come to more closely resemble the architect of New Labour.
Why? Because both men possess the same basic, underlying political strategy: to ignore large sections of their party’s base in pursuit of the swing vote of the moment. For Blair, this meant taking the northern working class for granted while trying to woo affluent southern voters. For Boris, it is doing things that will annoy the libertarian section of the Conservative’s electoral coalition – for instance, on lockdown strictness as well as big public spending during the crisis – all to try and keep on side the northern working class vote the Tories managed to capture in 2019. So, it’s basically Blairism in reverse, but with the same essential goal in mind: to isolate the opposition.
Not everything about Blair's strategy was perfect of course. He pursued many policies that had huge short-term benefits but even larger long-term negative effects. He spent too much, banking on a rosy future to sort everything out for him and his party. He got the Tories to back Iraq and had most of the voters he really cared about on side with the invasion, only to find public opinion slowly but definitely turn against him on the subject, ultimately killing his legacy.
Just like Blair, Boris is also spending too much. The covid crisis provides some cover for him to do this, but judging from his 2019 general election campaign pitch, he was planning on spending big anyhow. Could the effect of this overspending on the country’s finances in the long-term soon become the Tories’ Achilles heel? And could Boris's Brexit deal come back to bite? As with Blair's decision on Iraq, Boris managed to unite much of the political opposition behind him, but as problems emerge, this consensus could easily melt away.
Even if this does happen though, it does not mean that the Prime Minister will be the one who pays the price. Many of the downsides to Boris’ short-term solutions to problems will not be felt for many years. In other words, Johnson could leave office several years from now, stepping down of his own volition after having won several general elections in a row, with all of the negative effects of his policies only just beginning to be accepted as bad by the electorate. In doing so, he would follow in the footsteps of Blair: a man who stepped down at the height of his power but one who is all too likely to be heckled if he walks down the street.
So if Boris is like Blair what does this mean for Starmer? The current Labour leader is often compared to Ed Miliband but there is a better, much more fitting parallel: William Hague. Both have many things going for them, not least that they pass the ‘Can you imagine them in front of Number 10 as prime minster?’ test.
But unfortunately perhaps for Starmer, as with Hague, he became leader of his party at a time when it was at too low a point to be immediately rescued. Worse than that, Hague – as with Starmer – was put up against someone who had blocked out too much centre ground territory for the leader of the opposition to gain any foothold with the public. In other words, like Hague, Starmer’s leadership might have been doomed from the start.
Perhaps Starmer will get lucky and some of the problems Boris has stored up will come home to roost a lot sooner than the Prime Minister has banked on. It feels like Labour’s strategy for winning the next election is to wait for the Conservative party to mess up in some wildly public fashion. But while this might pay off, what this boils down to is this: the Labour party cannot win on its own terms. The Conservative party has to lose in order for Labour to win by default. On current evidence, that looks increasingly less likely, at least by the time of the next election in 2024. For now, at least, the money is on Boris winning bit again at the next election.