It is often said that there are few convinced ‘Boris-ites’ to be found among the ranks of Conservative MPs and that this lack of a praetorian guard of diehard supporters is a major weakness for the Prime Minister.
But a much bigger weakness is the rapid ebbing away of the ranks of Boris-ites among the public at large.
Last spring, when the progressive establishment thought it had the Prime Minister bang to rights over the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat, he sailed through the controversy and on to excellent results in the big round of elections at the start of May.
Out in the country many voters believed that the attacks on Johnson were being coordinated by a Remainer elite still furious with him for implementing what it viewed as the hardest conceivable Brexit. So the Leave electorate that had delivered him a landslide election win in December 2019 stood by him and ignored the furore over curtains and wallpaper.
A little more than six months later this has ceased to be the case. A YouGov poll for the Times this week finds the Tories have slumped to ten points behind Labour, 28 per cent to 38 per cent, while Johnson’s personal ratings have also tanked with Keir Starmer now leading him by 35 to 23 on who would make the best prime minister.
So what has gone wrong for Johnson in the interim given that most of his calls on the dominant issue of the day, the Covid pandemic, have turned out well? Certainly there have been several more examples of the PM refusing to be bound by the rules lesser mortals must obey including his attempt to exempt himself from the pingdemic, his bid to get his mate Owen Paterson off the hook of a damning sleaze verdict and now the partygate revelations.
The difference this time around is that there is little sign of an impassioned caucus of grassroots Boris supporters making itself known on social media. To put it in Hillary Clinton terms, his basket of deplorables would appear to be empty. There is a simple explanation for that – he has neglected them, or perhaps I should say ‘us’, dreadfully.
Recent months have seen little in the way of the UK standing up to the EU in the row over the Northern Ireland Protocol but have seen Lord Frost walk away in frustration over various issues. They have also seen Mr Johnson expend almost no effort to make good on the promise made at the start of his premiership to ‘send back’ irregular arrivals from across the Channel. At one stage in the autumn he pathetically claimed that there was very little he could do unless France was prepared to help out a lot more – the very antithesis of taking back control.
This is despite the issue being the number one concern of the Leave voters who gave him an 80-seat majority (as measured by the weekly YouGov issues poll).
Instead of addressing the collapse of the immigration and asylum systems, Johnson spent the second half of 2021 prioritising the fight against climate change – an issue cited as a top priority by more than twice as many Remain voters as Leave ones.
So now he has hit very choppy water again, are grateful environmentalists coming out to defend him in legions on the basis that while he may be a rackety chap at least he is their rackety chap? No, they aren’t. This is partly because political progressives are never going to forgive Boris Johnson for Brexit, no matter how zealously he pursues a future of carbon net zero, and partly because all the left-of-centre parties are at least matching his green offer anyway.
Instead of taking on the liberal establishment, the PM has spent months courting it to almost zero benefit. Is that what those workmen on Teesside who held up that hand-made ‘We Love Boris’ sign at the last election expected from him? I very much doubt it.
On a series of other issues he has also risked upsetting his political base, from breaking promises on the pensions triple lock and no national insurance rises to his flirtation with vaccine passports and his bizarre fence-sitting – or ‘Stonewalling’ – on the issue of whether it can be said that only a woman has a cervix.
In combination the effect has been to bin off one set of core voters while failing to recruit another. Are trans-rights campaigners or youthful battlers against inter-generational unfairness manning the barricades for him? Of that there is no sign.
One of Ronald Reagan’s favourite sayings was ‘You gotta dance with the one that brung ya,’ by which he meant a leader must deliver on his obligations to those who put him into power.
Boris Johnson has had his head turned by more fashionable habitués of the political ballroom. We – who he has turned into wallflowers – see him falling flat on his face and do not feel like going to pick him up.