It has been a remarkable week. Boris Johnson’s refusal to sack Dominic Cummings for what the vast majority of Britons consider a flagrant breach of lockdown rules has caused his personal ratings to tumble. According to YouGov his party has seen a 15 per cent lead over Labour collapse to just 6 per cent in a matter of days.
Johnson’s insistence that Cummings has done no wrong and that the country should move on from the issue and focus on tackling Covid suggests the Prime Minister hopes the fickle British public will eventually lose interest. Perhaps he is right: and with the next election four years away there is still much to play for.
But even before the Cummings controversy, public confidence in Johnson and his government’s approach to the Covid crisis was already ebbing away, while regard for Labour leader Keir Starmer was on the rise. This was partly a reflection of Starmer’s careful chipping away at the Johnson government’s record at Prime Minister’s Questions, notably highlighting its lack of protection for care home residents. The unusual, socially distanced PMQs gave Starmer, a former barrister used to the silence of court, an advantage. The lack of the usual Commons rowdiness also meant Johnson was unable to avoid answering Starmer’s deadly cross-examination with his usual crowd-pleasing bluster.
The contrast between the two men was predictable. Johnson is a showman, able to sell a simplistic, not to say implausible, phrase – as in the December 2019 general election when he repeatedly promised to ‘get Brexit done’. Starmer’s forte is careful, considered competence. Combine their characteristics and you’d have the ideal politician.
Some have questioned whether Starmer can maintain his advantage over Johnson once politics – and the Commons – returns to pre-Covid normality. Surely the election-winning showman would be able to prevail over the expert? But this was before the Cummings controversy. For over the bank holdiday weekend the Prime Minister surrendered one of the most powerful election-winning weapons in his armoury: populism. Johnson fought the last election as a continuation of the 2016 Brexit referendum – the vote Cummings is credited with winning by tapping into a decades-long resentment of Britain’s Left Behinds. This was summed up by Vote Leave’s invocation to ‘Take Back Control’ from the elite. Johnson used the same appeal to help knock down Labour’s northern Red Wall. And as an ardent Remainer, a London-based barrister, and a knight of realm to boot, some believed Starmer could easily be painted as part of the elite and the ideal protagonist for the newly re-elected populist Prime Minister.
But populism – the belief that a privileged elite lords it over an honourable people – was not created by Brexit: Brexit was an issue craftily attached to populism. Johnson’s support for Cummings has given Starmer the opportunity to emerge as the voice of a law-abiding people against an elite led by the Prime Minister which creates Covid regulations it does not itself follow.
It might seem unlikely that the Labour leader can emerge as a populist, but that is only because we are accustomed to a particular right-wing and nationalist version of the elite/people divide. Historically the Labour Party has often dipped its toes in populist waters. As one 1944 party document declared, ‘Labour Politics are the People’s Politics’. The ‘people’ of which Labour then spoke were the productive and ‘useful’ members of society willing to contribute to Britain’s development. This trope was not of the party’s making: it was inherited from Victorian liberalism which sought to unite the working and middle classes against the aristocracy, or as the great Liberal leader William Gladstone put it, to combine the masses against the classes.
In the mid-1960s Harold Wilson revived this progressive populism by famously declaring that the energies of blue and white-collar workers were being held back by an incompetent elite that only controlled company board rooms because of privileged family connections. According to Wilson the enemies of the people were the unproductive, those who either through interest or incompetence stood between a virtuous people and their rightful reward.
Wilson’s populism of competence – which saw Labour win office in 1964 after 13 years in opposition – was driven by the moral indignation that followed the Profumo scandal (which the Cummings scandal echoes in so many ways). It helped turn a podgy economist with a penchant for big cigars and whose natural world was the Oxford Senior Common Room into a sassy, pipe-smoking tribune of the people. Thanks to Johnson, Starmer also has the opportunity to undergo a similar, unlikely, transformation should he wish to seize it.