During the late autumn, the media stories about illicit Government drinks parties passed most voters by. They were particularly irrelevant to working class voters who were much, much more focused on perceived Government failures on small boats, tax rises and rising bills.
Before Christmas, in the focus groups I ran, the drinks parties were rarely brought up unprompted. When the Conservatives started dropping in the polls, everything I heard suggested the fall was primarily down to matters of hard political substance.
My strong sense is things are now changing: the new revelations are different, and will likely now start to eat further into Conservative poll ratings. Last week, middle class voters were telling us in focus groups that that they were incandescent about it all; we expect to hear the same this week and next from working class voters too.
What has changed? Two things: the sheer scale of the parties said to have been planned and held, which are simply unbelievable; and, more importantly, how close the gatherings were to the original eye of the storm in the spring of 2020. The picture of the more recent, sparsely attended event in the Number 10 garden is one thing, descriptions of dozens of attendees drinking from tables laden with booze when terror dominated the country is something else.
These stories matter to different voters in different ways, but there are enough details to irritate practically everyone. Some will say that the Downing Street party in May 2020 displayed blatant double standards; some will consider the Government to have been dishonest holding the event, and then apparently hiding it; some will think that it displayed arrogance, as if the Government considers itself to be above everyone else; others will think it’s all simply unfair – because they barely left the house when Government staffers were out drinking. With all these, you’re ticking off almost all worst ways a Government can irritate and anger its voters.
For some voters – particularly middle-class professionals (many teetering on the edge of voting Liberal Democrat) – it reveals a lack of “dignity” within Government. This isn’t nothing. However, as I’ve written before, the bigger problem is that it just makes the Government look like a giant mess. In other words, it creates or exacerbates a competence problem.
In delivering Brexit and a massive election win, Boris Johnson overcame his shambolic image. But it is back and now dramatically intensified. The recent stories make it seem as if the most senior people within Government are just doing whatever the hell they want – with no one really in control of anything; with no one apparently sure of what happened; and no one taking responsibility. It looks like no one is in charge.
This wave of stories would look bad at the best of times, and any Government would expect to take a hit. But it would be manageable were the Government perceived to be on top of things. The real problem is that all this comes after a series of perceived high-profile failures (on boats, tax and bills) – and ahead of a set of events that are going to really hammer ordinary voters. It appears to provide a plausible explanation for failure on the biggest issues: that the Prime Minister and his Government don’t know what they’re doing.
To be clear: this wave of stories is bad, but its political power ultimately lies elsewhere.
Losing a reputation for competence is an utter, unmitigated disaster for any Governmentm since it’s extremely difficult to get back. In the wake of Britain’s ejection from the exchange rate mechanism in 1992, the Conservatives lost their reputation for competence which they were unable to restore in nearly five years – many of them years of rapid growth and falling unemployment.
If this Government has indeed lost its reputation for competence, it will be trying to restore it in three short years amidst a shockingly bad economic backdrop (and continued difficulties on immigration).
To say the least, a complete political reset is needed. Boris Johnson is in a full-scale political emergency. The big question is this: is the Government past the point of no return with voters? You can’t say yes, given the Prime Minister’s huge political skills; but, for the first time, you really can’t say no either. What a change from the summer.