James Forsyth

The nightmare: Boris’s battles are just beginning

The nightmare: Boris’s battles are just beginning
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When Boris Johnson parted company with Dominic Cummings at the end of last year, it was inevitable there would be trouble further down the line. To pick a fight with one of Britain’s most formidable campaigners and his allies was always going to have consequences. It’s now becoming clear what they are.

Some of the revelations from Johnson’s enemies are quotable: for example, the allegation that he said in private he’d rather let ‘bodies pile high’ than allow a third lockdown. But what he said in anger, or what he considered doing, matters a lot less than what he actually did. That’s why the most serious question he’s facing is about the financing of the renovation of the Downing Street flat. The Electoral Commission has launched a formal investigation, on the basis that ‘there are reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred’. The Commission will want to know if Johnson asked the Tory party to pay before he personally refunded the £58,000. Were the rules broken?

The other question, of course, is how many more allegations are to come. The Prime Minister’s partnership with Dominic Cummings was one of the most productive and consequential in recent British politics: neither Brexit nor the 2019 general election victory could have been achieved without them working together. The pair have now turned on each other with the brutality that only those who were once the closest of allies can muster. Johnson, as the elected politician, is the one with far more to lose.

It would be reasonable to expect such accusations would put the Prime Minister in grave electoral peril. But there is a striking confidence among Tories about next week’s local election results — in England at least. One ministerial ally of Johnson is even bullish about the Tories winning Hartlepool, a seat which has always been Labour. If this happens, it would suggest that the Tories could make yet more gains in the red wall.

To his critics, the Boris phenomenon has never made sense. How can someone so shambolic and disorganised, someone who struggles to control his own office, be seen by voters as an effective leader? For a while, the answer seemed simple: his supporters wanted the Brexit referendum result to be delivered. They were happy to turn to a maverick to get it done. So they didn’t really vote Conservative; they voted Boris.

But what would happen once Britain left the EU? Would these former Labour voters stay with the Tories? The 2019 general election was all about Brexit and Corbyn. Once these two factors were gone, would the new Tory electoral coalition simply fall apart?

For now at least, the polls suggest not. The size of the Tory lead is all the more striking given that Brexit has vanished from the national conversation. I spent time last week with Andy Street, up for re-election as Mayor of the West Midlands. I asked if voters still mention Brexit on the doorstep. Almost never, he said. ‘It’s as though because of Covid, the country’s just moved past it.’

Street sees a deeper political realignment taking place, which started in 2005 when the Tories began to win seats that had been Labour for generations. The Tory majority, he tells me, is not ‘some aberration that Boris brought about on the back of Brexit and probably Corbyn’. It happened because ‘the metropolitan Labour party seemed very distant from the value set of local people’.

The local elections are being held in a country only now crawling out of lockdown. More than half the population have had one vaccine dose and a quarter of adults are fully vaccinated. Voters will be mindful that this pace of vaccination is happening in no other European country. In France only one in five have had their first dose, and in Germany it’s just under a quarter. In the Republic of Ireland, those aged over 60 can register for a vaccine: in Northern Ireland, anyone over 35 can.

The vaccine rollout has changed people’s view of how the government has dealt with the pandemic. At the start of the first lockdown, 72 per cent of voters approved of the government’s handling of Covid. This crashed to 30 per cent by September when Britain had one of Europe’s highest death rates. The approval rating has since climbed steadily to 59 per cent.

Vaccines, it seems, immunise against more than just the virus: they provide quite a degree of political protection. When I asked one West Midlands voter who he was voting for, he replied, ‘I’ve had my jab’, as if it was an answer to the question. The latest YouGov poll gives the Tories a ten-point lead: highly unusual for a government approaching the midway point of a parliament.

When Corbyn stood down as leader, many Tories thought the Labour party’s traditional strengths would return. Now, Conservative MPs are wondering if Labour may be going the same way as the Socialists in France, who came fifth in the last presidential election and are not expected to make the final round in 2022. The biggest danger to the Tories comes when its campaigners turn on each other, as we see now.

One of those who worked with Johnson and Cummings says that ‘their falling out was written in the stars’, as there was always a question about who was setting the agenda. The tensions between them were exacerbated by Covid because the pair had very different instincts about how to respond. More broadly, the Prime Minister began to feel he was being told it was Cummings’s agenda or no agenda. These tensions exploded in spectacular fashion last November and resulted in Cummings’s departure from No. 10.

When Johnson accused Cummings of leaking details of the second lockdown — a charge he passionately denies — the result was all-out war. The PM was motivated more by frustration than strategy: he was infuriated by the drip, drip of leaks which he blamed on Cummings. The leak of messages between Johnson and the Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman caused particular concern. If private messages with a foreign leader could come out, then almost anything could.

Sir Keir Starmer’s strategy is to talk about Tory sleaze, rather than concentrating on one individual scandal. A minister optimistic about his party’s prospects concedes that the Tories’ Achilles’ heel is a suspicion that they are ‘money grubbers, who feather their own nests’. But in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon is not making such a big fuss about this. She doesn’t need to. That’s why the situation there is far more serious.

Sturgeon has just walked through a fire far hotter than the one blazing in Westminster. The scandal that engulfed the SNP was as great as any in British post-war history: Alex Salmond alleged that Sturgeon’s allies conspired to use the law to remove him as a political threat. Yet her standing is undiminished because most of her voters want independence and see the Salmond accusations as part of a bitter political row. The SNP remains on the cusp of winning an overall majority in an electoral system designed to prevent any party from doing that.

Sturgeon may soon claim the democratic right to hold another referendum. The response from Westminster will be ‘now is not the time’, given how long it will take to recover from Covid. But the more time passes, the harder that line will be to sustain in the face of an SNP majority at Holyrood.

Any politician, let alone one who thinks out loud the way that Johnson does, would be in danger if someone who’d worked with them so closely turned against them. The Electoral Commission’s inquiry poses a whole other set of risks to his position. The biggest danger — and challenge — to Johnson’s premiership remains, however, the situation in Scotland. A seemingly Teflon Prime Minister is up against a Teflon First Minister. The prospect of an SNP majority is the real threat to the Tories and to the future of the United Kingdom. Johnson’s biggest battle may yet be ahead of him.

Never more than six feet
‘They say you’re never more than six feet away from a chatty rat.’