The next general election is still Boris Johnson’s to lose - Brian Monteith

Another two by-elections and another two defeats for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives. Naturally, the speculation is mounting that he cannot win a general election and his party would be better to change leader now and seek to find someone more popular. Frankly, I think it would be a fool’s errand.

Boris Johnson walking through the grounds during the G7 summit in Schloss Elmau, in the Bavarian Alps, Germany.
Boris Johnson walking through the grounds during the G7 summit in Schloss Elmau, in the Bavarian Alps, Germany.

It’s not the leader that needs to change but the policies the whole party is pursuing – that’s what will turn round the Conservatives’ electoral fortunes. Even if they don’t there is still reason to believe Johnson could pull of an astonishing victory whenever the test comes. Here’s why.

The main opposition, despite what the Liberal Democrats and SNP will tell you, is the Labour Party. It is Keir Starmer’s Labour that has to win big to unseat the Conservatives – and the party’s prospects are not as obvious as its cheerleaders suggest. You might be surprised to know that Wakefield was Labour’s first by-election gain since Corby in 2012 (9.7 per cent swing), yes it has won some of the 37 by-elections since then but those were Labour seats being defended. It is gains that it needs to win.

The swing to Labour of 12.7 per cent in Wakefield is relatively modest; in the past it was by-election swings of 28 per cent (Dudley West 1994), 22 per cent (SE Staffordshire 1996) and 18 per cent (Wirral South 1997) that helped deliver an eventual victory for Tony Blair. In comparison Ed Miliband enjoyed larger swings than Starmer at Barnsley Central (13.5 per cent in 2011) Middlesbrough (14.7 per cent in 2012) and Manchester Central (16.4 per cent in 2012) – but still lost to Cameron in 2015.

The problem Boris Johnson has – and it is entirely of his own making – is not so much people switching to Keir Starmer’s Labour as the utter disappointment that I believe is developing into disillusion and a stubborn refusal to turn out and support Johnson and his party. There are some that believe all that is needed is a change in leader and then with one bound the Tories will romp to victory. I am unconvinced.

We have a Conservative government that is not making the best use of Brexit that it could. Instead, it is holding back on cutting VAT on energy, failing to abolish laws the UK previously voted against in Brussels – and needlessly maintaining tariffs on goods we do not make or foods we don’t produce – all while failing to protect its borders. The Conservatives stood Remain candidates in Wakefield and also Tiverton and Honiton that both voted Leave, failing to get its own supporters out.

Meanwhile, in its financial management it has spent like a drunken sailor and raised taxes to the highest level in the living memory of the majority of the population. There is no coherent plan to tackle the scourge of inflation that it has failed to understand or take seriously enough.

The Treasury mandarins dominate economic policy, being accepting of inventing money through Quantitative Easing and taxing more, when the rise in world prices creates an opportunity to cut some taxes (such as on petrol) that would encourage economic activity and help families get through their weekly budget.

Johnson’s un-costed and unilateral adoption of Net Zero carbon emissions holds him back from making the necessary changes that would relieve the burden for millions. If there is to be a change it needs to be at a pace the electorate can endure and endorse – not be brutally imposed while neighbouring countries choose to boost coal-powered electricity generation and buy Russian gas. The exploitation of our own oil and gas reserves can buy us time to adjust to small nuclear generation, but instead the warmth and health of our poorest are sacrificed to make virtuous statements at international summits that convinces not one single voter to think the Conservatives as caring or compassionate.

And this is the biggest lesson Conservatives never learn; voters are not fooled by insincere politicians spending taxpayers’ money to look good – certainly not when they are shivering at home, witnessing their savings being eaten by the corrosion of inflation and cutting back to necessities just to get by. No amount of being supine socialists or lukewarm liberals convinces past Labour or Liberal voters to lend them their support – but it does keep Conservatives sitting on their hands.

The problem of the theory that replacing Johnson will work for Conservatives is there is no evidence to show the policies causing the problems and the wholesale disenchantment would end. If anything, the observance of tax and spend, Net Zero, the worship of global institutional consensus rather than appealing to sovereign domestic decision-making would simply continue – if not accelerate. Would Truss really be different? Hunt, Gove or Javid – really?

Maybe he thinks that when confronted by the what the other parties are offering the deserters might return in enough number. That is a very high-risk strategy.

True, Starmer could still be fined for his behaviour in Durham – and then what? Johnson could reshuffle his Cabinet and bring David Frost in as Party Chairman. There is still a great deal of road to be travelled down and Johnson is in a better place than his fellow Conservatives to complete the journey. Yet he still resists making the necessary changes.

In 1997 John Major lost because the Conservative vote stayed at home. Its vote collapsed from 14m in 1992 to less than 10m in 1997, while Labour’s vote increased from 11.5m to 13.5m it was still lower than what Major had first achieved.

What voters want are politicians that say what they will do and do what they say.

Johnson can still win, but he must restore trust by showing the Conservatives are recognisably Conservative to get their votes out or he will have trashed his brand like no one since Gerald Ratner.

Brian Monteith is a former member of the Scottish and European Parliaments and is editor of ThinkScotland.org

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