Patrick O'Flynn

Even Boris’s supporters are turning against him

Even Boris's supporters are turning against him
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Perhaps the past seven chaotic weeks are best regarded as an experiment by the Tories. Boris Johnson's intention appears to be to establish just how badly he can run the country while remaining on course for re-election.

Despite calamity after calamity hitting Boris’s administration, things are still looking rosy for the party: Politico's poll of polls shows that we are basically back where we were this time last year – at pretty much level-pegging between the Conservatives and Labour. There is no sign of the kind of positive surge in support for the opposition that would indicate the electorate is considering putting it into power. 

A year ago – on 24 November, 2020 – Politico’s poll of polls had the Conservatives on 39 per cent and Labour on 38 per cent. As of this week, those averages were Conservatives at 37 per cent, and Labour at 37 per cent.

And yet something significant really is happening, as is revealed when looking at the Prime Minister’s personal poll ratings. His YouGov monthly tracker has deteriorated for seven successive months. His net score now stands at -35, which is even worse than Keir Starmer’s. The percentage of people saying Johnson is doing badly has hit an all-time high of 64 per cent too. We have entered territory where it is no longer just the people who dislike Johnson saying he is doing badly; lots of his 2019 coalition of voters appear to be reaching the conclusion that he is fundamentally useless too.

It has long been my conviction that Starmer is a duffer who cannot win the next election. But equally, should the Downing Street operation not improve soon, there is every chance that Johnson will be sent on his way by his own side.

If we look at the major developments since Tory conference, we can see that Team Johnson has blundered in every case. It may be that Cabinet Secretary Simon Case and Downing Street chief-of-staff Dan Rosenfield are both capable performers in general. But it is transparently obvious that neither has the political nous or clout needed to keep on track a man depicted by his former chief adviser Dominic Cummings as a wonky shopping trolley.

The most telling errors since conference can neatly be categorised as Downing Street’s 'seven deadly spins'. The Owen Paterson disaster is the one that has garnered the most coverage. Many observers saw in advance that succumbing to a plot by various country house Tories to get their mate off the hook was bound to blow up in Johnson’s face. But apparently nobody with any authority within the inner-circle expressed that view forcefully. And so the PM drove the car into a ditch.

Going gaga over Green stuff for COP26 was also bound to intensely irritate a substantial portion of the core Tory vote. A wise strategist would have ensured there was a simultaneous balancing offer on another big subject from the PM to cheer up these voters. But nobody did.

The third big mistake came from the PM himself in the wake of the shocking killing of Sir David Amess – repeated after the Liverpool terror plot – in the form of his complacent and cliched responses ('We will never allow those who commit acts of evil to triumph', 'The British people will never be cowed by terrorism' etc) that were unaccompanied by any meaningful plan to tackle the threat of Islamic extremism. Platitudes in the face of the Islamist onslaught may once have sufficed, but no longer.

Mistake four came in the mishandling of the changes to the northern rail strategy announced last week. Nobody 'rolled the pitch' in advance or sought to win the argument for switching from a couple of prestige investments to a more broadly-based strategy for medium-sized, swiftly deliverable schemes. So spending more than £90bn on northern rail improvements somehow became seen as a slap in the face for Red Wall voters by snooty southern Tories.

This has since been compounded by mistake number five: tweaks to the funding rules for social care support that appear to protect owners of high-priced houses in the south much better than low-priced ones in the north. It beggars belief that nobody in Downing Street spotted the potential for this narrative to get going and that such a delicate and dangerous political issue should have been allowed to get taken over by Treasury bean-counters.

The sixth deadly spin came with the PM’s under-prepared and badly delivered speech to the CBI this week. If David Cameron was at times the 'essay crisis' premier, at least he usually ended up submitting work of a decent standard even if it was after frantic, last-minute effort. Johnson would have been better not to talk to business leaders at all than to deliver the drivel he came out with.

But it is the seventh deadly spin that has the capacity to do the most damage: Boris's complete failure to put together a workable plan to tackle the cross-Channel boats. On Johnson’s watch, we have seen two annual treblings of these illegal arrivals, despite his pledge on taking office in summer 2019 that: 'We will send you back'. If the traffic trebles again next year it will mean up to 90,000 walking up south coast beaches to lodge asylum claims.

So why has Johnson allowed Priti Patel repeatedly to over-promise and under-deliver? Why has he not requested and acted on a clear assessment of where an offshore processing centre could be situated so the pull factor can be eliminated? What about a deserted British overseas territory such as South Georgia, or Lafonia at the southern end of East Falkland? Why has he not established which international conventions the UK would need to withdraw from to implement offshore processing or told voters if he is ready to do this? Why is he allowing the Nationality and Borders Bill to languish in the slow lane of legislation?

The lack of seriousness or political will is surely down to Johnson and Johnson alone. Tory voters and Leave voters have rumbled it and hate it. We cannot go on like this much longer.