The Tories have been ahead in the polls for months now and by significant margins. Sure, they lost Chesham & Amersham and failed by a tiny number of votes to win back Batley & Spen, both disappointments and, in the case of the former, a possible warning sign. But even so the polls are stuck with the Tories hovering around the 40% mark, sometimes up to 43% and Labour around 30%. Why might this be?
Some suggestions: –
- Boris got Brexit done.
He kept this one big promise. It is not often that politicians make such clear promises. It is even less often that they keep them. All the arguments about what he did or did not promise about border paperwork or the Irish Sea or what he said to fishermen or others is as nothing compared to this. The agonies of the previous Parliament as MPs – particularly opposition MPs – appeared to do everything they could to avoid implementing the referendum result infuriated those who had voted for Brexit. And others too, who felt that honouring a democratic vote (even if one didn’t like it) mattered in a democracy. Whatever criticisms can be made of the Brexit deal (and there are plenty), the Tory party was able to say that it did what the people voted for. This matters even now.
- A Mephistophelean bargain with the electorate.
Boris is far from perfect. He does not bother to hide this. Many in his government are far from perfect either. Voters do not care – or not much. They are not perfect either. So long as the Tories deliver what a majority of them want, any peccadillos, lies, immoral shenanigans, hypocrisies and venality will be overlooked or given less weight than others might prefer. What might be objectively important (at least to high-minded commentators) is not necessarily important to most voters.
- The vaccination programme.
The PM got this one right – he hired the right person and let her and her team get on with it. Money and resources were thrown at the issue and the country is now well on the way to getting a majority of its population vaccinated with a booster vaccine on its way. It is an astonishing achievement. The fact that other countries have also done well does not detract from the government’s success. Whatever the concerns about the current third wave, vaccinations are the only way out of Covid, the only way to live with it. They provide both hope and relief. This government ensured that we are getting them. It deserves credit for this.
- Embracing the right.
The Tories have embraced their inner UKIP and Brexit party – not just in relation to Brexit but more generally. Who is there to outflank them on the right? Johnson’s Tories have something of 1970s Heineken beer about them: refreshing those parts of the electorate other parties cannot reach.
- Levelling up promises.
This may end up being guff, much less than promised. But finally a party appears to be talking to and about those parts of the country and the electorate which have felt abandoned and/or patronised. And if it works it may herald an important change in how the country’s benefits are shared. Lots of “ifs” and “maybes“, of course. But a shift in focus which is being addressed by the Tories and not by the party which regards these voters as its exclusive fiefdom.
The Tory party has reinvented itself while in office, expelled those who disagreed, abandoned whatever principles it previously had, stolen programmes commonly associated with other parties and spent as much money as it could lay its hands on to keep voters happy. Who cares about the inconsistencies if enough voters benefit.
- A Conservative country? And which of the 4 countries in the UK might this refer to anyway? But the Tories understand, just as Labour has – for years – forgotten, that many of Labour’s traditional voters are small “c” conservatives who happen to vote Labour. Once those voters stopped voting Labour – or for something Labour wanted – their votes were up for grabs. This has happened to Labour in Scotland and now in large parts of England. Labour voters – at least in England – are voting for a Tory party which appears to better express the values and desires of Labour voters.
- Long Corbyn.
He may no longer be leader or even a Labour MP but he showed a side of Labour which many voters did not like and which either repelled or scared others. The consequences are with Labour still.
- Being not-Corbyn is not enough. What is Starmer for? Why does he have an invisible Shadow Cabinet? What is the point of Labour? There is not much of an answer. To the extent that Starmer has made an impression, it is of him kneeling, talking about wallpaper and getting into a ham-fisted fight with his deputy while mostly agreeing with the government. Is there anyone in Labour thinking about what sort of country a Labour-governed Britain should be? If the choice is between the Tories and an empty space, the latter is unlikely to win.
- Armageddon has not happened. Despite – maybe even because of Brexit – and Covid, the UK has not fallen apart or collapsed into anarchy. There are plenty of difficult issues to be dealt with, of course, some of them very difficult – but which government doesn’t have those.
There are many counter-arguments to the above: the wide Tory coalition may not hold – especially as post-Brexit choices annoy various groups, economic conditions become harder to manage as the costs of Covid come to be paid, levelling up largely remains a slogan and unaddressed issues turn into big problems. Labour may finally learn how to oppose effectively and sell itself as an attractive relevant alternative. Some ethical mishap may become the final straw. Or, possibly, voters will decide that it is time for a change.
But even if voters dislike particular aspects of a government’s behaviour – its tendency, for instance, to think that the laws are for others not itself – it would be a mistake to assume that this alone will turn them against it. They may enjoy more teaching commentators and other parties some important lessons about voters being in charge. They may be furious with Tory mistakes or arrogance simply because they expect or want better. And a clever ruthless party will learn to listen to such warnings. Don’t bet against the Tories not doing so – however inept or tin-eared they often seem. For now, the Tory poll lead is not an aberration or inexplicable. It may well continue for some time.