Are the skids under Boris ?
A report from the Old Bexley and Sidcup By Election.
Two men kitted out in rather splendid tree costumes amble down a piercingly cold Sidcup High Street. They seem uncertain why they are there : “it’s sort, of like, part of a fair”.
I know why I am in this London borough – a combination of current curiosity and nostalgia – for the last five years I’ve spent many of my Saturday afternoons in wet and windy English towns, taking the political temperature. On Thursday the voters of Old Bexley and Sidcup go to the polls to elect an MP after the sad death of the much-respected Conservative MP James Brokenshire.
The bloke in the bright blue spangled suit and bowler hat, standing in front of a pile of soapy suds covering the pavement laughs. “Those trees – they never seem to know what’s going on” He waves a big hoop “I’m about to blow a very big bubble” explaining they are all part of a celebration ‘Partly the Council but also something to do with a lady from the church” to mark the switching on of the Christmas lights. As he says this, we both do a double take, looking up and down the high street. Not an outline of a reindeer in sight. No string of bulbs festooning the lampposts – not one single festive light in view. Bubble man chuckles again `’it’s a Conservative council – they’re short of money -maybe it’s the cutbacks”.
I’m not quick witted enough to ask him if Boris’s bubble has burst, but it is why I am here – after a few torrid weeks for the Prime Minister the question is ‘are the skids finally under Boris ?’
A by election is as good a test as any. Don’t get me wrong – there is no way the Tories are going to lose this seat, where Ted Heath was MP for more than half a century, one of the handful of London boroughs which voted for Brexit, with its nearly 19,000 majority at the last election. But voters like these will decide the fate of Boris Johnson, one way or another, in time.
Labour here claim ‘there are lots of Tory switchers’ which if true, would make an impact after the last lamentable week.
As far as many Conservative MPs are concerned the shine has definitely come off the Prime Minister. Each of his recent missteps has stripped aside their illusions, revealing a host of different problems.
It all started with the arrogantly imperious instruction from Number Ten to vote to protect a chum, Owen Patterson – or else. Tory MPs don’t like being ordered around or taken for granted in a less than salubrious cause.
Hitting the less well-off homeowners outside London and the South East doesn’t sit well with ‘levelling up’. Nor does the paring back of ambitious Northern rail plans. Both make MPs who owe their jobs to the collapse of the ‘redwall’ distinctly nervous. The toe-curling, watch through your fingers, car crash of a speech to the CBI highlighted the carelessness and lack of preparation bordering on contempt which has long been a hall mark of Johnson, which left him repeatedly muttering ‘Forgive me, forgive me”. But will they ?
Only as long as he remains useful.
The essential point to remember is that for many in the Parliamentary Party the Prime Minister is a tool. Yes, that too, but I mean he is an instrument that keeps open the door to continued power – someone who ‘got Brexit done’ with vigorous brutality then went on to win an election big time. The brio, vim and verve dazzled them.
As one author said recently on Radio Four (about men) confidence is often mistaken for competence. It is a mistake the Conservative Party is unmaking, as the mini soap opera ”Boris in Bungleland” continues to unfold apace. He has his loyalists, of course, but he’s not much loved – his bumbling bonhomie often seems forced in small groups . His charisma is best appreciated at a distance --- he has little of that high wattage charm of Clinton or Blair which convinces you for a few minutes that you are the most fascinating person in the room.
The common opinion at Westminster is that he’ll keep his job as long as he is seen as a sure-fire election winner – however he cocks up the bits in between.
Continuing my epic journey along Sidcup High Street I find a jazz band playing from a wooden hut, possibly also part of the celebration of those elusive Christmas lights. They certainly get the freezing shoppers to stop and bop. Among the most enthusiastic dancers is Elaine and her dog Stanley. I’m assured he’s not named for the Prime Minister’s father and indeed fails to jump up on me, settling for a demure sniff. Elaine is a nurse and is still a big fan of Boris “Look what he had to cope with, Brexit and Covid. Who could do any better ?” She says her husband would have lost his job without the Government’s furlough scheme and for that she’s very grateful. This is where the Prime Minister’s ever so flexible big state populism is more in tune with many voters, than those of his MPs who long for old fashioned tax cutting Toryism -and prefer the Chancellor’s sound bites about fiscal rectitude than the reality of his budget. It is a further tension eroding the PM’s connection with his Parliamentary party. Up to a dozen of them are rumoured to have put letters in calling for a leadership contest – it would take 54 to do the deed.
But I have a question for Elaine. For those of us who have long seen Johnson’s buffoonery as a performance to hide in plain sight his lack of seriousness and focus, it is essential to understand his appeal. What did Elaine make of the Peppa pig debacle ? She has to think for a moment about what I mean, but then says ‘It’s a bit sad, but I feel sorry for him. It can’t be easy’.
When I heard the speech, I thought of a put down by a bitchy old colleague to another correspondent who froze on air. “Don’t worry, we’ve all nearly done that”. Nearly. But we don’t do it because the very thought is the stuff of nightmares. Usually, even the most polished performers go through their notes, check everything is in order. Johnson just can’t be arsed, is too full of self-belief to give half a damn. He got a lot of bad press to be sure, but imagine the bucket of ordure the tabloids would tip if it was a Labour figure who did that. Indeed, most politicians would never get off the floor.
Another woman, walking away from the dancing crowd with a smile on her lips, is equally forgiving. She thought the late James Brokenshire was wonderful and likes his would-be replacement. But Boris ? She’s indulgent, seeing his performance as a sign of hapless humanity, not contemptuous disregard. “You’ve got to feel sorry for him, haven’t you ? It’s a bit sad”. She still likes him but can see a future without Boris : “He might want to go back to the Telegraph and make some money, he’s got that wife, after all. I like that Rishi S, Se ..” She falters “Sunak” I supply. “Yes, Rishi Sunak he’d be good”. What about Sir Keir Starmer ?
Another couple, who’ve voted Conservative in the last election, are more taken with the Labour Leader : “we quite like the look of him, but aren’t so keen on those around him” – Angela Rainer is singled out as ‘too shrill”. They wouldn’t vote for Johnson again, at any rate.
This is an important part of the calculation – a resurgent Labour Party could tilt the balance away from Johnson. So could pressure from the hard right – a threat from Nigel Farage to return to the front line, has given the Conservatives the heebie geebies. In this constituency there are four parties standing which are to the right of the Conservatives, including UKIP. Strategists will be watching to see if they take many votes. Johnson re-made Conservative party is nimble rather than ideological, but pretty happy to move even further to the hard right, if it sees electoral advantage.
No one I spoke to mentioned the core issue of migration, which saw the Prime Minister’s lowest moral point last week, playing domestic politics with a deadly crisis to shore up his base, and allow the tabloid to froth with righteous fury. It is not unreasonable to accuse Macron of also playing to the gallery, but it is very clear where the roots of the spat lie : the French President thinks the PM is always, eternally and exclusively driven by cynical domestic advantage, never diplomacy or policy. The whole Brexit process means he will never trust Johnson, and views him with contempt, particularly for demanding the right to return migrants to the EU – an agreement which previously existed and was torn up by Brexit.
So look out for gunboats in French waters on Thursday. That’s a joke. I hope.
There is one final factor which mustn’t be overlooked when peering into Johnson’s possible futures – the
man himself. He doesn’t appear to be having much fun and despite the bluster about transforming Britain he’s not really someone driven by a mission. He could tick the box, collect the sticker and, as the lady said, go back to the Telegraph, write what I would bet would be side splitting self-deprecating future classics about his time at the top and make oodles of lovely dough. Some in Whitehall think that is exactly what he’s about to do. I’m not so sure – his vanity and ego will demand a a brighter, more substantial, place in the history books than he’ll earn if he chucks it in now. What that better historical billing might praise him for I really can’t conceive, but I suspect he won’t want to give up, knowing he’ll go down as a dud. On the sudsy but unstoried streets of Sidcup I detect little growling discontent. It’s a brief visit , anything but scientific and Friday morning could prove me wrong. Nevertheless, even though Tory voters are not as worried as MPs, the direction of travel is clear, the skids are indeed under Boris, but it will be a slow slipping and sliding which could be arrested by events at any stage. It will, in the end, be people like the voters of Sidcup who dictate his fate, and for now they still seem in a forgiving mood.
Even without their Christmas lights.