Patrick O'Flynn

Can Cummings really hurt Teflon Boris?

Can Cummings really hurt Teflon Boris?
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Seldom have so many keyboard warriors and political activists professed so much dissatisfaction towards the government of the day. For some left-wing bloggers and tweeters, the number one cause of outrage of the moment is so-called 'Tory sleaze', a subject to be added to an already formidably long list of gripes towards Boris Johnson that includes Brexit, the claim that Britain is not very racist and his alleged unforgivable bungling of the Covid crisis.

On the right, there is now, if anything, an even wider array of issues igniting fury towards the Prime Minister. These range from the ongoing suspensions of normal civil liberties to an allegedly 'ruinous' green agenda; from his penchant for high public spending to the workings of the Northern Ireland protocol; from a failure to scrap the BBC licence fee to diluting pledges to stand up for forces veterans.

For both factions it all seems increasingly personal, involving unflattering caricatures of the PM as a buffoon, clown, right-wing monster, left-wing monster, or believer in no-one and nothing but himself.

But here’s the strangest thing: none of it is making any difference to the Prime Minister’s standing in the eyes of the general public. Even the latest allegations from Dominic Cummings are unlikely to have much of an impact on Boris’s popularity. It is as if Boris Johnson has donned a coat made of Teflon. In fact, the more that the most politically engaged people rage at him, the more popular he seems to get.

This is apparent not only in a Tory poll lead over Labour now averaging almost ten points, but in the PM’s personal ratings. His YouGov monthly tracker recording the balance between those who think he is doing well or doing badly has shifted from -25 in October to evens now. Redfield & Wilton’s latest poll gives him a +15 rating, compared to just +2 for Keir Starmer. SavantaComRes has Johnson rated the best person to be PM by 44 per cent of voters, compared to just 30 per cent for Starmer.

Not only is Labour taking a pasting, with almost nobody who has visited the Hartlepool by-election campaign now expecting anything other than a Tory victory. But no other party is riding any kind of wave either. Reform UK, the Richard Tice-Nigel Farage vehicle, appears becalmed.

Clearly the success of the UK vaccine roll-out has been very helpful to the PM – a transformative event relating to the biggest political issue of our times. But there is more than that going on. Boris Johnson just seems more in tune with the public mood than are his critics.

Beneath the shambolic exterior is a man who seems to get most of the big calls right in the eyes of the public. This week’s intervention to sink the proposed creation of a European Super League by the richest football clubs was a case in point.

Daring to plunge the public finances massively into the red during the emergency phase of the pandemic is also looking more and more like the correct call, with almost every economic forecaster now remarkably bullish about UK prospects for the next two years.

On Covid itself, on current trends we are just a month away from Italy retaking from the UK the unwanted title of the European country to have seen most deaths. On the measure of deaths per million of population, there are already several European countries above Britain. And we are opening up at a pace most voters seem comfortable with too.

Most of Johnson’s critics on the right would argue that the issues they have identified as causing concern are mainly slow-burners and that their positions will be vindicated in the fullness of time, especially as regards the costs of environmental policy. Equally, one could retort that if this turns out to be so, Johnson is a flexible enough operator to adjust course. In any event the idea of a more radical approach to environmentalism being unpopular among Tory-inclined voters in general isn’t showing up in polls.

Johnson’s critics on the left would appear to be missing the public mood even more strikingly. Their predictions of doom and gloom on the back of the Brexit deal are collapsing – as recently noted by Wolfgang Munchau – leaving them more exposed than ever in the eyes of the electorate over the true motivation behind their Brexit-blocking antics in 2019.

And Starmer’s decision to make Johnson’s text messages to James Dyson his attack point at PMQs this week was a major mistake, indicative of his lack of understanding of public priorities. 'We need you,' Johnson told Sir James, as he promised to do whatever it took to ensure Dyson employees would not be hit with tax penalties if they answered an engineering call to arms.

To Starmer this was evidence of sleaze and special favours. To any normal person it will surely have been evidence of a PM determined to make things happen and save lives. As it happens, the rush for more ventilators did not turn out to be a Covid game-changer. But it might have done. 

And Johnson’s can-do attitude towards the problem was in the same spirit as his bold decision to go it alone on vaccines, appointing someone dynamic from outside Whitehall to lead a special task force. Does anyone think Starmer the stolid proceduralist would have embarked upon such a brilliant innovation?

Highlighting Johnson’s ability to make an unresponsive political establishment try new approaches to deliver on public priorities is most unlikely to damage him. Perhaps the idea was to motivate Labour’s core vote of public sector Guardian readers to turn out on May 6, with the party already having written off its prospects among more mainstream folk.

Starmer’s team could certainly do with understanding a point made by Tony Blair in his memoirs: 

'For most normal people, politics is a distant, occasionally irritating fog. Failure to comprehend this is a fatal flaw in most politicians. It leads them to focus on the small not the big picture. It means they get things out of proportion, it breeds paranoia and it stops them from understanding what really moves and matters.'

The Labour leader is firing at all the wrong targets just now. This week he would have done better to add some depth to his recently-professed passion for the armed forces by asking Boris Johnson about the betrayal of veterans alleged by the departed Johnny Mercer. 

Or he could have pressed the Government about its latest shallow stunt to ramp up house prices to the advantage of the biggest Tory donors – the state-backed 95 per cent mortgage. Because housing is likely to be a big battleground at the next election, whereas what Johnson told Dyson will hardly matter at all.