Boris Johnson Boris Johnson. Photo: Tim Hammond / No 10 Downing Street / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, license linked below article

Even Tories now recognise their disgraced leader has morphed from electoral asset to electoral liability, argues Sean Ledwith

In the pre-pandemic era, the Prime Minister’s allies used to talk about his unique ability to reach out to voters who would normally never consider backing the Tories. His two mayoral victories in London and the Brexit-dominated general election of 2019 were supposedly the evidence for this so-called Heineken effect.

This week’s council election results in England confirm that Johnson’s capacity to cut through to non-Tory voters is emphatically a thing of the past and even his own party are now falling over themselves in a bid to break the association with the most disastrous UK premiership of modern times.

When is a Tory not a Tory?

In Hartlepool, the panic-stricken Tories issued an election leaflet with the desperate message:

“This Thursday, please don’t punish local Conservatives for the mistakes made in Westminster. We are local, and proud of where we live, and like you, we want the best for Hartlepool.

In Dominic Raab’s constituency, the party highlighted the phrase “Local Conservatives” as prominently as possible. Four hundred other Tory candidates around the country tried the same devious ploy to distract people’s attention from their calamitous national leadership.

In Ealing, Tory leaflets were distributed without a single image of Johnson and in North Tyneside, the party even ditched the traditional blue in favour of green-coloured literature. In Redbridge, the Tories opted for a picture of former leader Iain Duncan Smith rather than the current incumbent. Perhaps the ultimate example of this laughable tactic was in Leeds, where the Conservative council leader didn’t even mention which party he was standing for on his leaflet!

Very shy Tories

We have become used to the phenomenon of the shy Tory voter in recent years; that is to say, the person who tells the pollster one thing but then does something different in the privacy of the voting booth. Such is the scale Johnson’s turpitude that now we have the even more remarkable phenomenon of the shy Tory politician! The Tories are paying the electoral price for their Faustian pact with the most amoral and venal British politician of modern times.

Johnson’s cynically crafted image as an amiable twit with the common touch who can get things done was always a fraud but in the aftermath of his murderous handling of the pandemic and flagrant disregard for both the law and morality as witnessed with lockdown parties, they are now reaping what they have sown. Despite party managers trying to wish away the latter issue, it is apparent most British people are not blasé about their Prime Minister being a convicted lawbreaker.

Reverse Heineken effect

As the results have come through today, it is plain to see why Tories up and down the country have been desperate to counteract Johnson’s reverse Heineken effect. So far, the Conservatives have lost control of 10 English councils, most notably the three former strongholds in the capital of Wandsworth, Westminster and Barnet. The attempt by Tories in the second of these to distance themselves from Johnson was clearly in vain.

The ousted leader of Wandsworth, formerly a flagship Tory controlled council, was unambiguous about where the blame lies: “consistently on the doorstep the issue of Boris Johnson was raised.” Another defenestrated Tory council leader, John Mallinson in Carlisle, was equally scathing about the impact of the PM on voting:

“Partygate was a big thing and of course the cost of living crisis. It’s the integrity issue basically, I just don’t feel people any longer have the confidence their prime minister can be relied upon to tell the truth.”

Mallinson also stuck the boot into Environment Secretary George Eustice’s crass comments earlier in the week, suggesting that we all buy value brand products as the solution to the cost of living crisis.

The Tories are on course to lose over two hundred councillors in England, fulfilling the worst expectations of party managers about this round of elections. It is possible this might trigger another attempt by Johnson’s critics in the parliamentary party to oust him. However, he will probably survive for now as his most likely successor, Rishi Sunak, has pressed the self-destruct button with his own fines for lockdown busting and the controversy over his wife’s dodgy financial activity.

Letting Johnson off the hook

Based on these results Labour would be projected to win 35% of the total vote in a general election to the Tories’ 30% with the Lib Dems on 19% and other parties on 16%. Keir Starmer is trying to present this as Labour recovering from the Corbyn era. In fact, the Labour vote is down by 0.3% from the last time these seats were contested in 2018 – under Corbyn’s leadership of course.

Starmer will try to cash in on Labour’s advances in the capital, but outside London the party’s performance is less clear cut – they lost control of Hull to the Lib Dems for example. In light of the fact that on polling day the Bank of England pushed interest rates up to 1% and announced inflation could hit double digits by the end of the year, the key opposition party should be expected to do much better. Starmer’s wooden persona and lingering association with Labour’s Brexit fudge in 2019 continue to let Johnson off the hook.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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