By Mark Connolly
2021 was the year that Boris Johnson seemed to lose his shine. After an overwhelming election victory in 2019 and near-consistent polling leads throughout the entirety of his first 18 months in office, the Prime Minister – and, by extension, the party he leads – began to slip. The summer was the first harbinger of the shape of things to come: an election loss in Chesham and Amersham to the Liberal Democrats and some scandalous demotions of major cabinet figures (most embarrassingly, the former Health Minister Matt Hancock) suggested a potential future change of fortunes.
However, it was in December that the wheels fully came off. Amid a major corruption scandal involving Owen Paterson and shocking revelations about a now-infamous Downing Street Christmas party (and, more recently, another one in May), the Conservatives suffered a significant knock in public opinion for the first time since December 2019. Keir Starmer’s Labour Party was enjoying polling leads as large as 8 per cent, with a poll commissioned by the Sunday Times projecting 124 Conservative seat losses, a total wipeout in Scotland and a 26 seat majority for Labour.
Gossip then emerged of a potential leadership challenge from within the Conservative Party as he suffered a rebellion from his own MPs over lockdown measures. After a bruising few months, 2021 ended with a Conservative defeat in North Shropshire, again taken by the Liberal Democrats. And, as the ongoing situation over the ‘Partygate’ scandal(s) develops, it seems more likely than ever that Boris Johnson’s premiership may soon be at its end. This was the beginning of the end of our once-triumphant and seemingly unassailable Prime Minister – or so we were told by our tabloid front pages.
The reality is, as ever, more complicated. Johnson will likely hobble on, and if not, his party is far from finished. If there is to be a major challenge to Tory hegemony, it will not come from the corruption and scandal of recent months.
For many reasons, it is unlikely that the recent swing in the polls away from the Tories will carry over to a general election. Firstly, none of this is anything new. In 2019, YouGov found that a significant majority of the public thought Boris Johnson was untrustworthy; yet, they gave him a majority. It wasn’t a dealbreaker then, so why would it be so now? Secondly, we are in danger of overemphasising the significance of the Tories two by-election defeats. By-elections almost never change the balance of power in parliament, meaning voters get a ‘free hit’ without the major stakes at play in a general election. Compounding this, both Chesham and Amersham and North Shropshire had extremely low turnouts – in normal circumstances, the silent majority in these constituencies would return a Conservative candidate to Westminster.
It must, of course, be acknowledged that the Conservative Party is utterly ruthless; it is the most effective political machine in history, existing solely for the purpose of governing. Precedent tells us that they are not sentimental about leaders. Even their most electorally successful leader ever, Baroness Thatcher, was swiftly ousted as soon as it became clear she was no longer an asset. This instinct for self-preservation should suggest that Johnson’s position is never entirely safe from challenge within his own party, and should further rebellions occur in parliament, then it may fall to Liz Truss, Priti Patel or Rishi Sunak to take up the mantle. In this event, don’t expect a major sea change: Sunak, for one, remains the nation’s favoured choice as Prime Minister ahead of Keir Starmer.
Going into 2022, we should therefore be realistic about the possibility of political upheaval: Boris Johnson will remain PM as long as he can hold together a stable base of support, and, with Christmas parties and Downing Street wallpaper firmly in the rear-view mirror, the temporary rebellion of North Shropshire will likely be forgotten and the Tories firm favourites to win in 2023. Nor will Brexit teething problems see the government suffer at the polls (provided there are no sudden dramatic changes to this situation), seeing as Britain’s relationship with the EU has rapidly fallen down the list of voters’ top priorities.
Rather, if there is to be a major challenge to the Tories’ position, it will come not from sleaze allegations or rebellious backbenchers, but rather it will come from somewhere far more boring: the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
Let us unpack this a little further. For decades, the traditional Tory ‘base’ of affluent rural communities across the south of England was marked by high rates of homeownership. Accordingly, community planning and new housing developments rank as a high priority for these voters. Indeed, while a majority support greater housebuilding, most do not want these new homes in their own area. This attitude has been labelled NIMBY-ism (‘not in my back yard’) and is most common among the overwhelmingly conservative Baby Boomer generation.
This trend was borne out in Chesham and Amersham, where voters’ opposition to HS2 and disdain for promised new housing developments on greenfield sites in their area were met by a Liberal Democrat candidate in touch with these concerns. This was a marked contrast from the Tory candidate, tied to a party promising 300,000 new homes a year and major new high-speed rail projects. Given this choice – between state-led expansion of the built environment and NIMBY-ism – many long-time Tory voters chose the latter.
As has already been said, the unique circumstances of a by-election mean we cannot simply extrapolate this trend to the entirety of southern England, but similarly we should be wary of dismissing housing as low-priority. The issue was clearly important to the fifty MPs led by Theresa Villiers who rebelled against Robert Jenrick’s demands that every local authority give up land for new developments. And, for one anonymous Tory MP speaking to the Financial Times, the issue of housing and regional development had the potential to “eat [Boris] up” unless he guaranteed protection of greenbelt sites.
Indeed, there has been some recognition of this fact from the Prime Minister, who demoted Jenrick swiftly after Chesham and Amersham and replaced him with Michael Gove. Thus far, Gove has avoided the politically awkward terrain of planning and stuck to more headline-yielding issues around safe cladding for rented apartments. But the truth is that, sooner or later, the party must state clearly its approach to the future of the housing market, and clarify whose interests they will represent.
It is undoubtedly a tricky task. Upset home owners, and the historic Conservative base may well turn to Ed Davey’s Liberal Democrats no matter the stakes of a General Election. Conversely, should they choose to abandon infrastructure projects popular in the north and with among lower income groups, they could lose all gains made in 2019 to Labour or even to Richard Tice’s Reform Party (formerly led by Nigel Farage). And, possibly worst of all, if the Tories attempt a halfway house, then they risk the confusing triangulation so despised by the electorate at large. This would be deeply damaging to a party whose campaigning strength lies in bold, crystal-clear messaging – after all, who could forget the minimalistic genius of ‘Get Brexit Done’?
Electoral politics is, of course, a moving target, and the issues that concern and motivate voters are constantly in flux. It is therefore extremely difficult to reach any concrete conclusions. That said, two points stand out – an assertion and a prediction.
Firstly, an assertion: economics matters more than culture. We are so often told by figures both left (Paul Embery) and right (Matthew Goodwin) that the new post-Brexit political alignment falls along the lines of culture and values, rather than class, pitting the urban ‘woke’ cohort against patriotic voters, rather than rich against poor. This mode of thinking appeared to undermine that old refrain of 90s politics, “It’s the economy, stupid!”, forcing strategists to rethink which messages resonated with voters. However, if housing is a major priority for Britain’s most crucial electoral demographic, then the old wisdom still holds true. Ignore flags and anthems – focus instead on community planning and house prices.
And lastly, a prediction: if, indeed, we are due an early election in May 2023, then it will largely be decided in 2022. Barring any major changes in the priorities of older Conservative voters, housing is set to be the determining factor in whether the Tories can hold their coalition together. Accepting these premises, Michael Gove will necessarily be the most important person in British politics this year. Watch this space.
(At time of writing, Boris Johnson has not yet resigned from his position as Prime Minister.)
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.