A rare apology, a spluttering speech and signs that the Red Wall might crumble
have left British politics in a state of flux
There was a sense as November became December that the tectonic plates of British politics were at last starting to shift, with reverberations beyond just the Conservative party and government. Emboldened by the absence of a coherent opposition for much of his premiership, the Prime Minister has often behaved as if he is exempt from the basic laws of political gravity. But the Owen Paterson scandal that broke in mid-November finally saw a major downturn in both his and his party’s ratings.
Three other events in rapid succession then further shook the foundations. First, Boris Johnson attended what usually passes for a key event in a Conservative leader’s calendar – the annual conference of the Confederation of British Industry – and made a speech about Peppa Pig in which he dramatically lost his place and then started to make motor-car noises. It was one of the most embarrassing and humiliating spectacles in British political history: at least Theresa May’s coughing party-conference speech of 2017 was not due to idleness, and didn’t show a crushing contempt for her audience.
Second, details (that can only have been leaked by a Conservative party insider) emerged of rule-busting parties for Johnson’s staff held this time last year in Downing Street itself. The Prime Minister was not present, but the festivities took place while Britain was locked down for a Christmas that, thanks to Covid, never happened. Those members of the public who broke the rules – and most did not – were punished, sometimes severely.
Johnson appeared unsurprised when the parties were revealed, suggesting he knew about them and had simply turned a blind eye. The perception was that they had joined the inexhaustible list of things about which he manifestly could not care less, while he and his Cabinet simultaneously urge the public to care very much about where they go, what they do, and whom they do it with.
Unlike past hypocrisies that upset only those who follow politics closely, this disregard for rules at a time when many were denied the chance of spending time with their families caused anger and outrage among the wider public. It forced Johnson into making a rare apology in the Commons, and the resignation of his adviser Allegra Stratton.
Nerves and tempers are fraying in the Tory party, with a large group of its MPs now believing the recent spate of disasters is jeopardising its overall majority
But the third and final development was the most significant. This was the reshuffle Keir Starmer held on 30 November – without, it seems, consulting his deputy leader, Angela Rayner – which removed the last remaining Corbynite from the shadow cabinet. Starmer also promoted people who won’t frighten the sort of middle-of-the road voter who withdrew their support for Labour under Corbyn, many of whom voted Conservative in so-called “Red Wall” seats.
To bring back Yvette Cooper hardly suggests a return to extremism, any more than the decision to give more senior roles to David Lammy, Lisa Nandy and Wes Streeting – the last of whom took a courageous stand under the Corbyn regime by objecting to Labour’s increasingly anti-Semitic tenor. Labour still has a minority of hard leftists who will never accept that they represent views that appal millions who might once have voted for the party.
But these people have been thoroughly marginalised and Starmer has learned not to be intimidated by them. Although his troubles with Rayner are far from over, his reshuffle signals that he and his parliamentary party have, to a large degree, grown up, and are serious about acquiring power and engaging in the business of government.
Sadly for Labour, putting together a credible shadow team embracing reasonable policies is not yet enough to win an election. Only in 1945, 1966 and under Tony Blair did the party win enough seats in England alone to form a majority government at Westminster.
This matters, because at the 2019 General Election Labour won just one of the 59 Scottish seats in the Union parliament, with the Scottish National Party currently holding 45. Meanwhile, membership of the Scottish Labour Party stands at a pitiful 16,000, and the prospects of them improving their share of the Scottish vote do not look hopeful. Unless Labour can win at least half the seats there, its chances of governing at Westminster again are remote.
It is this phenomenon that has made the Conservative leadership believe that it can more or less do as it likes. Even if the Tories lost the 39 seats that would deprive them of their overall majority or, with the compliance of the Democratic Unionist Party, the few more before it reached the point where all the opposition parties could combine and defeat a Queen’s speech, Labour could hardly afford to make an electoral pact with the SNP.
This is because the SNP’s price for such a deal would be a referendum on Scottish independence. If such a referendum succeeded, Labour’s chances of governing in England and Wales again would be highly remote, certainly as things stand now.
The party would have to continue its journey back to Blairism, or to something resembling the old Liberal party before the Great War. It has taken nearly twelve years since Labour last left government for it to agree on the importance of pursuing politics in a sensible fashion. How much longer it might take to move to a position where it can win back not just the red wall but some Tory heartlands, as in 1997, is anyone’s guess.
There is, however, one sign of hope for Labour in Scotland. There have been press reports, vigorously denied, that Nicola Sturgeon will stand down as the SNP’s leader and first minister some time before early 2022 and 2023. Despite the denials, Scots who are plugged in to her circle in Edinburgh believe the stories have a degree of truth.
According to well-sourced rumour, Sturgeon’s friends are telling her that she will not succeed in her aim to secure another referendum in the next eighteen months, and that even if she did, the nationalist cause would not prevail. Besides that, divisions in her party remain stark over the treatment of her predecessor, Alex Salmond, and the SNP is still fighting off accusations of corruption and other improprieties. Sturgeon has no obvious successor, which is simply another means of saying that whoever takes over from her is likely to lack her considerable gifts as a politician.
Rishi Sunak’s hint that taxes could fall is not just a means of helping his party to win the next election, it is a bid to position himself as the next prime minister
Added to this is the fact that nerves – and tempers – are fraying in the Tory party, with a large group of its MPs now believing the recent spate of disasters is jeopardising its overall majority. Those Conservatives who argue that there is no obvious successor to Johnson are wrong. In fact, his potential successors are lining up. Not least of all is Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who briefed journalists in early December that there might be cuts in income tax and even VAT before the next election.
It is precisely the type of policy, increasing disposable income, that should appeal to voters who by then will have been hit hard by inflation, notably by rises in the price of energy and mortgage repayments. Sunak as a supply-sider knows that with the highest tax burden for 70 years wrecking his party’s reputation for fiscal probity, cuts in taxes could actually increase revenue: his hint that taxes could fall is not just a means of helping his party to win the next election, it is a bid to position himself as the next prime minister.
Other ministers are also on manoeuvres. Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, has made the most of an energetic and relatively successful time as trade secretary to boost her profile in her new job, even imitating a famous pose of Mrs Thatcher on a tank when she paid a recent visit to British troops deployed in Estonia. And anyone who writes off Michael Gove, who has the most electorally important job in the government as the secretary of state for “levelling up” and is setting about it with commitment and vigour, is not paying attention.
Above all, our politics have become unpredictable simply because every week – sometimes it seems like every day – the amateurishness with which the British government is run has begun to throw up embarrassments that cause unexpected damage to those in charge. At the time of writing, we await the outcome of the North Shropshire by-election caused by Owen Paterson’s resignation from the Commons, with the Liberal Democrats believing they have a serious chance of winning.
All polls suggest that the Paterson episode – not just his apparent turpitude, but the sheer arrogance with which the Tories sought to prevent him being held up to scrutiny – has caused deep damage to Johnson and his party. A poll in the Observer on 5 December suggested that only 5 per cent of people think MPs are in it for anything or anyone other than themselves, and polls by Perspective confirm something similar.
In such a negative and volatile climate, matters can change rapidly; with an opposition now apparently geared up to take the fight to the government for the first time in two years or more, nothing can be taken for granted. What is certain is that if the parliamentary Conservative party starts to perceive the loss of its overall majority as a probability rather than just a possibility, it will act to force changes of policy, changes of tone and, if necessary, a change of leader. And the way things are at the moment, that perception becomes more pronounced by the day.
Simon Heffer is a historian, columnist for the Telegraph and Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham