Is Boris Johnson Destroying the Conservative Party As We Know It?

This article first appeared at on 6th October 2021

Party conference season is an acquired taste. For party members, activists, Westminster-based journalists, lobbyists and PR-types, the hottest ticket in town.

Personally, after 25 years of watching them, I’d rather be outside the bubble than listen to carefully calibrated speeches to appease this or that faction; soundbites for TV news few will notice or remember; policy announcements that never materialise; completely false versions of history. I can catch up from distance, if necessary.

I was in the air during Keir Starmer‘s speech last week. Upon landing, it was no surprise to learn that Labour’s left found it turgid, vague, uninspiring. Or that mainstream media pundits gushed over the death of the far-left and imminent return of New Labour. It was equally no surprise to see virtually no movement in the polls.

Likewise, the betting is largely unmoved. The Conservatives have drifted slightly to [1.54] to win Most Seats at the next general election. No Overall Majority remains favourite at around [2.24], just ahead of Conservative Majority at [2.46]. Boris Johnson remains [1.18] to survive as Tory leader until at least July 2022, [1.85] until at least 2024.

It seems bettors share my disinclination to over-react to such set-piece events. Boris Johnson has just delivered another trademark upbeat, amusing speech that won’t stand up to any serious scrutiny. I doubt that will move the needle either and concur with the analysis of this leading psephologist.

I would refer to the general trend towards entrenched polarisation and partisanship seen here since the EU referendum, and sweeping the Western world. Two blocks of voters, divided by demographics and cultural values, are not likely to cross over very much and especially not on the basis of a few speeches.

The bigger questions concerns what might move them, and whether age-old truisms still apply. That what real world experience shapes politics and elections.

My first political memory was Margaret Thatcher winning the 1979 election. The context shaped politics for decades. The imagery from that crisis – The Sun headline “Crisis, What Crisis?’ mocking Labour PM Jim Callaghan, bins being left unemptied – defined it. Labour were blamed for the Winter of Discontent and winning again under Tony Blair required 18 years passing and a drastic rebrand.

I’ve long felt that voter opinion swings on rare, seminal moments. Black Wednesday in 1992 destroyed the Conservatives’ reputation for economic competence for a generation. The Iraq war destroyed trust in Tony Blair. The 2008 financial crisis destroyed Labour’s economic reputation.

It feels like we are living through a similarly seismic shock. Food and petrol shortages, spiking energy prices, soaring Covid deaths since ‘Freedom Day’. It hasn’t affected voter behaviour so far, but what if the future is one crisis after another? A perpetual state of emergency. Will that alter the perfectly distributed 37-42% of Tory voters?

I do believe that perpetual crisis is upon us, and find it hard to believe it won’t affect those Tory voters. They are overwhelmingly elderly and therefore on fixed incomes. Tory policies kicking the poor, or students, don’t directly affect them. Inflation, especially energy prices and council tax, will.

Then there are other cornerstones of any Tory coalition. Farmers, forced to cull their livestock and leave fruit and veg to rot in fields. Employers, struggling to find staff and facing wage-hikes. Businesses, under attack from government ministers. One Tory MP, unbelievably, signalled intent to go after the supermarkets.

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