It’s fascinating how quickly so much can change in politics.
Two years ago, Boris Johnson led the Conservatives to their best general election result since Margaret Thatcher’s landslide in 1987 and left a Labour opposition in tatters with just 202 MPs.
But now, with Omicron claiming its first victim, worries over more lockdown restrictions, and a scandal over parties at Downing Street, questions over Johnson’s continuing as Prime Minister have arisen.
Ever since these revelations materialised about parties at Number 10 last Christmas when the rest of the country was in lockdown, and some were saying goodbye to loved ones, Boris Johnson’s opinion poll lead has now evaporated.
The days of early 2020 when his poll leads were over 20% and when the utterance of “get Brexit done” was enough to ride the wave of popularity are a thing of the past. Labour’s increase and the sharp decrease for the Tories is undoubtedly a worry for Johnson. Prime Ministers often appear weaker to the public and their party in the wake of negative opinion polls, especially ones that place the opposition nine points ahead.
There have been several examples where the government’s carelessness has resulted in public outcry since the pandemic began in March 2020.
Most famously was the Dominic Cummings Barnard Castle saga last summer. But there have been several other instances where the public has almost given the government a free pass (the number of Covid-19 deaths, the Downing Street flat-refurbishment episode, and even (to a lesser extent) Matt Hancock’s breaking of restrictions). Now, however, that generous mood has transformed into sheer anger.
With Labour’s poll lead alarming the Conservatives, along with the upcoming by-election in North Shropshire, can the Tories recover, or is this the beginning of a spiral-downwards that will continue until the next election?
With a sharp change in voting intention, no doubt this reminds some Tories of an event from days gone by, one that resulted in the party’s longest period in opposition in centuries.
When John Major’s Conservative Party won the 1992 election in what was the party’s fourth consecutive majority victory, many commentators and politicians argued over whether Labour could ever win again. That thesis changed just five months after the election.
On 16th September 1992, the UK was forced to withdraw from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism after the pound became devalued compared to other European and worldwide currencies. It was later found that the crisis cost the government £3 billion, along with the Conservative’s popularity.
It destroyed the trust that the public had placed in the government just months before, and the Tories, who are usually trusted most with the economy, entered years of deep unpopularity. Their humiliating defeat in 1997 wasn’t a surprise, neither was their prolonged period out of government. Could something similar be happening today?
Of course, the emergency of today is radically different from the deep recession in the early 1990s. This is about public health, as well as the economy.
But as Boris Johnson is at his most unpopular among the public, as is his government, polling appears to follow that trend in late 1992. That unpopularity may well continue depending on the result of Thursday’s by-election.
More importantly and urgently, however, are the next actions of the Labour Party. It would have been unimaginable in December 2019 to think that Labour would have a chance to form a government, majority or otherwise.
As the possibility of a Labour government grows, it’s down to Sir Keir Starmer to make as much of this moment as possible. He has two paths open to him, both of which may result in a Labour victory, but only one leads to true sustainability in government.
After the 1992 defeat, Labour elected John Smith to be leader. He was a safe pair of hands and one generally liked by the public. It remains one of the greatest tragedies in political history that Smith died too young aged 55, less than three years before he would have led Labour to a landslide victory.
However, his style of leadership and the “one more heave” mentality that effectively only relied on the unpopularity of the Tories did not take advantage of the moment. He certainly would have won a general election, probably a second one, but probably not a third. Labour needed to take advantage of the moment to create a period of renaissance and staunch popularity for the party’s ideas.
The man who achieved that was Tony Blair. His reinvention of Labour didn’t just modernise the party in a style similar to Harold Wilson in the early sixties, but under his leadership, Labour’s stance on the economy and crime became harder.
It attracted Conservative voters to Labour, a direct transition that resulted in Labour victories in 1997, 2001 (both landslides), and 2005. It allowed Labour to not just sustain its length in government to carry out a progressive agenda, but it ensured that there was no such thing as a no-go area for Labour.
Under Smith’s leadership, the two Conservative by-election defeats didn’t go to Labour, but the Liberal Democrats. Under Blair, they gained three safe seats from the Tories (one once held by the first leader of the modern Conservative Party, Robert Peel).
Starmer will have to make his choice. The Tories are at their most vulnerable, and the party appears to be growing more disunited. If Labour wants the chance to succeed in the next election, they must act quickly and grab hold of the public while they have their attention.