James Forsyth

Boris Johnson is preparing to fight the wrong election

Boris Johnson is preparing to fight the wrong election
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The next election won’t be like the 2019 campaign. It will be far tougher for the Tories. Ministers were struck by a recent presentation by the Tory strategist Isaac Levido to the cabinet a fortnight ago, in which he stressed that the next election would be much more like 2015 than 2019. Levido’s argument was that the three key factors which led to the Conservative victory two years ago were Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson — but the next election campaign would be a far more traditional affair. To win, as I write in the magazine this week, the Tories will have to show that they have delivered on their promises and emphasise what MPs have done for their constituencies.

Corbyn is gone. Now, Keir Starmer might not be the most impressive replacement but as Levido pointed out, his ratings are still a significant improvement on Corbyn’s. Corbyn also served another purpose for the Tories: he united their new electoral coalition. In crude terms, red wall voters disliked his lack of patriotism and his cultural leftism, while more traditional Tory voters in the south feared the effects of Corbynomics.

In 2024, Brexit will not be the issue it was in 2019. The polling Levido shared with the cabinet showed that in marginal seats in the last election, it was a key issue for more than six in ten voters; that number has dropped to just a quarter of the electorate. Johnson has talked about the importance of a ‘keep Brexit done’ narrative for the next election, yet it is hard to imagine that by then Brexit will have anything like the resonance it had in 2019 after months dominated by attempts to overturn the referendum result.

The declining salience of Brexit is a particular problem for the government given the numbers of migrants crossing the Channel in small boats: already three times more have arrived this year than last. This makes it hard for the government to claim it has taken back control of the borders. Yesterday’s tragic events in the Channel showed the human consequences of the failure to deal with this issue.

In a sign of how the Channel crossings crisis is exposing the Tories’ right flank, Nigel Farage is openly speculating about a political comeback based on this issue. If he were to return to the political scene, he would immediately knock several points off the Tories’ poll ratings — sending Tory MPs into a panic.