In recent weeks, confidence in this Tory government has plummeted. Mixed messaging, uncountable u-turns and increasing ineptitude has taken its toll, ending Boris Johnson’s 236 consecutive lead in the opinion polls.
Last week’s poll in The Observer has caused shockwaves amongst the conservative contingent in Westminster as it placed support for Labour level with the Tories at 40 percent. The poll, conducted by Opinium, also highlighted that during the pandemic the Conservatives lead has slowly eroded down from a massive 26 percent to zero.
This poll could be just the start of an even greater haemorrhage of support. The Telegraph has speculated that Treasury officials are “pushing for the largest tax rises in a generation,” which will cause concern for voters, especially in the Tory heartland seats that tend to represent middle class, middle England.
Nonetheless, opinion polls are almost irrelevant in making a great Prime Minister. Rewind to the early 1980s to Margaret Thatcher’s first premiership, and the picture was even bleaker for Conservatives.
Between her first election victory in May 1979 and the outbreak of the Falklands War, Mrs Thatcher led in only three out of more than one-hundred opinion polls. In some cases, notably after the conception of the alliance between the Liberal and Social Democrat Party, the Tories were pushed down into a dismal third.
However, there are clear differences between a Johnson-led Conservative Party and the one led by Margaret Thatcher between 1975 and 1990. While the Iron Lady stared down her economic critics telling them that the “lady’s not for turning”, Boris Johnson has been accused by one parliamentary party colleague of being led too heavily by public polling.
If this is because Boris Johnson wants to be remembered like his political idol, Winston Churchill, then he will be left disappointed. Churchill’s wartime leadership left him revered by the public at large. While the pandemic has been the single largest health and economic threat to the United Kingdom since 1945, coronavirus has, in the most part, failed to heal the volatile and divisive political landscape that divided Britain during the last decade.
This in itself is evident in opinion polls. Support for the government tends to be higher among individuals who voted to leave the European Union in 2016 rather than with those who voted to remain.
So what can Boris Johnson do to reassure those who voted for him last December? How can he reignite the fervour of his supporters from the embers of disappointment?
It is simple.
No ifs no buts, the Prime Minister must not capitulate to Michel Barnier’s Brexit demands.
The complete contrast in negotiation tactics utilised by Boris Johnson and David Frost compared to their predecessors, Theresa May and Olly Robbins, will undoubtedly fill Conservative Brexiteers with some confidence.
Moreover, the first massive hurdle that the government overcame in talks with Brussels was an undeniable success for the UK. In rejecting the EU’s plea to extend trade talks, the government avoided additional costs that would otherwise have threatened the country’s economic recovery, shackling the UK to Brussels’ restrictive rulebook.
Since then, the government’s negotiating position has been the only thing that I can wholeheartedly champion. David’s Frost uncompromising Brexit blueprint and Boris’ unbending Brexit backbone has helped me maintain faith in this government as it has continued to invoke the Vote Leave mantra of 2016, chiefly that the UK will take back control of its money, laws, borders and notably fishing waters.
After the seventh round of talks, Michel Barnier has described the chances of a deal as “unlikely“. This should not fill voters with fear. As the Prime Minister has said, the United Kingdom will “prosper mightily” with either an Australian-style Brexit or a Canada-inspired accord.
With this pro-Brexit government, unlike May’s converts before it, voters should be genuinely confident that Britain will reap the economic and political benefits of its independence.
Lord Frost’s comments in his exclusive interview for the Mail on Sunday should be welcomed by Brexiteers. The former CEO of the Scottish Whiskey Association told the paper that the UK will not “blink” in the eighth round of negotiations and that Britain would not become a “client state” to the European Union.
If Boris Johnson can continue to stand firm in his talks with Brussels then he, as the Brexit Prime Minister, will be remembered as the man that changed Britain more than any other Prime Minister in my lifetime.
In doing so, the Prime Minister must realise that it is almost impossible to be liked by everyone in politics. Having nailed his colours to the Brexit mast in 2016, the Prime Minister should continue to champion the Brexit cause, if not he risks placing the Tories on an irrevocable path to a calamitous electoral defeat in 2024.
By trying to juggle public opinion, Boris Johnson may be able to emulate Winston Churchill in the only way he would not want to. Despite his wartime success, Churchill’s 1945 campaign was a complete disaster and saw the old Harrovian jeered by crowds shouting “we want Labour”.
However, if Boris Johnson can ensure that the United Kingdom obtains a Canadian-style Brexit deal which acts in the interest of the British people, or even an Antipodean-style Brexit that ensures the UK takes back full control of its political, legal and economic independence, then he could be remembered similarly to Margaret Thatcher, who herself stood up to Europe on many occasions.
A failure to do so risks an even greater collapse in support for the Prime Minister. To many supporters, it would be the final nail in a coffin of disappointment. Sky News’ Sam Coates recently dissected a YouGov poll that suggested a narrowing in support between Labour and the Conservatives. His post-mortem concluded that Tory voters had not flocked in their droves to Labour, but instead Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, whose predicted vote share has doubled since the election last December.
Boris Johnson may be lucky. Come 2024; the Prime Minister may be the beneficiary of another TINA (There is No Alternative) election if the Brexit Party, rumoured to be revamped as the Reform Party, do not stand in any constituencies. But if they do stand then a failure in Brexit talks could ensure defeat not just for the party but for Boris Johnson himself in his seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip.
That is not to say the public doesn’t recognise that his premiership has been difficult, of course, it has. But it is to say that Brexit, an issue that polarises and politicises our electorate like no other, can help kick start a long-term political recovery for the Prime Minister.
If the Prime Minister is to hike up taxes or negotiate a deal unpalatable to pro-Brexit Tory voters, then a new centre-right party, or an existing one led by Nigel Farage, may be the beneficiary of Tory dissenters cum protest voters.
While David Cameron managed to fend off the threat from Farage in 2015, Starmer’s ability to coalesce the predominantly liberal and remain vote could make the electoral ramifications of a botched Brexit deal as disastrous for the party as the Conservatives defeat in the election of 1964.
Alec Douglas-Home was ousted from Number 10 after less than a year in office as a sizable chunk of disgruntled Conservative voters opted for the Liberal Party, like they did in the normally safe seat of Orpington in the by-election of 1962.
The coming weeks potentially pose the most significant challenges to Boris Johnson’s government so far. And if, as The Telegraph’s Camilla Tominey stated, the struggle to get children back to school is the equivalent to Maggie’s miner’s moment, then make no mistake about it, Boris’ Brexit battle could be his Falklands factor.
The ideas represented in this article are not reflective of the values held by UCL Conservatives. The opinions expressed in this article are solely representative of the author.