British Politics

Can the Tories still win big without the Boris-factor?

Amid fresh partygate allegations, the Prime Minister’s political position has never been weaker. But what will the morning after a Tory-coup look like and will Johnsons’s successors be able to replicate his landslide-victory of 2019?

Making political predictions can prove a risky business in today’s climate. That said, it would seem with every passing day that Boris Johnson’s position is becoming less and less tenable. The slow drip-feeding of stories and allegations has seen his personal polling collapse, dragging down the Conservative party’s numbers with it.

As a party that has never been afraid of taking action when a leader becomes an electoral drag, speculation on who might replace Johnson has already begun. Many names have been floated from Jeremy Hunt to Penny Mordaunt and Dominic Raab to Priti Patel.

However, it has been widely reported that the two current frontrunners are Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.

Both senior politicians have made moves recently that could signal a leadership run. It has been reported that Rishi Sunak has recently attempted to distance himself from the upcoming National Insurance rise (reportedly referring to it is as “the Prime Minister’s tax”). In contrast, Liz Truss would appear to be a more openly vocal supporter of the current PM, perhaps hoping to win over those who remain loyal to him, should he choose to step down.

If the Prime Minister does leave his post, a significant concern for the Conservative party will be whether they can repeat the stunning electoral success of 2019, when Boris Johnson delivered the party an 80-seat majority.

As a campaigning force, Boris Johnson was widely considered an electoral asset to the Tory party.

Despite numerous gaffs and seemingly never-ending stories on his personal life, Boris Johnson has great panache that manifests itself as an unambiguously charismatic speaker that would seem to relish being the centre of attention. These traits are advantageous on the campaign trail when addressing party activists or giving speeches, and he presents a difficult target to pin down in debates (as Sir Keir Starmer has previously found at PMQs).

However, perhaps his most important quality about the 2019 general election was his long-standing association with euro-scepticism, both as Brussels correspondent for The Telegraph and his prominent position with the Vote Leave Campaign, which saw his “Get Brexit Done” message in 2019 carry additional weight with many northern leave voters in so-called “Red Wall” seats.

Quite whether a successor would be able to replicate this success is uncertain.

Currently the bookies’ favourite to end up with the top job, Rishi Sunak has several factors that work in his favour when seeking to emulate a 2019-style victory.

While he was not as heavily associated with the Vote Leave campaign as the current PM, he did vote for Brexit and issued a statement calling it “by the far the toughest decision I have had to make since becoming an MP.”

A recent survey by JL Partners for Channel 4 News revealed that he was the most popular politician in key northern and Midlands seats that the Tories would have to win again (and, in the case of Bury South, win back) with a favourability rating of +22.

This is unsurprising given the popularity he enjoys nationally, with YouGov currently ranking him as the most popular Conservative politician in the country.

There is a broad perception that his financial handling of the Covid-19 crisis may have contributed to this popularity, as the treasury’s furlough scheme was paying the wages of around one in four people in the UK at some point between March 2020 and June 2021, according to the ONS.

That said, it is not all good news for the Chancellor’s prospects of electoral success. Though an articulate speaker, he often fails to convey the type of charisma that the current Prime Minister exhibits in his public appearances.

Organisations like #Forgottenltd and Excluded UK also reminded the public that many fell through gaps in the government’s Covid-19 financial support – something the Chancellor arguably failed to address.

While his polling in critical seats initially seems favourable, the political climate must also be considered. Becoming Chancellor during the pandemic, his overall approval has gradually declined over time, from a high of 53% in May of 2020 to 33% in December of last year, as reported by The New Statesmen.

The Chancellor has also recently come under fire with allegations that the treasury was seeking to “write off” vast sums of money fraudulently claimed during the pandemic, with Treasury minister Lord Agnew resigning at the dispatch box in the House of Lords, accusing the government of having “little interest in the consequences of fraud to our society.”

Whether the current series of Number 10 “Partygate” allegations will go on to tarnish Sunak’s reputation is also yet to be seen, as he is a key face of the Johnson cabinet as well as the current resident of Number 11.

While Liz Truss is also a senior figure in the present government, her potential for electoral success post-Johnson may be slightly more of an unknown quantity.

According to recent reporting, she has been catapulted into the conversation about who could replace Johnson by her popularity within the 200,000 or so Conservative party members who would elect a new leader.  

Whether or not this would translate into 2019-style success with the wider electorate is a matter of some speculation. While Liz Truss enjoys less name recognition than the Chancellor, a future leadership campaign would doubtless boost that, and, in the final quarter of last year, her popularity also appeared to be trending upwards (according to YouGov).

With current events in Ukraine very present in the headlines, the Foreign Secretary is sure to be never far from our screens.

Regarding her personal qualities, comparisons between her and Margret Thatcher have been made, though she has claimed they are coincidental. Several photos have surfaced of her seemingly in similar situations to the “Iron Lady”, who was famously pictured in a tank and on a motorbike (as Truss has been).

How much these comparisons would hinder or help her will be a subject of debate, as many of the northern “Red Wall” seats that she would be looking to retain in a general election were not communities with a favourable historical opinion of Thatcher.

Though she told the BBC’s Nick Robinson that she would have voted for Brexit “in retrospect”, the fact that she initially voted to remain in the EU could also be a factor in Leave-voting “Red Wall” constituencies, where Boris Johnson (by comparison) came to embody Brexit in the minds of many.

Should Boris Johnson leave office (whether via his own doing or a no-confidence vote), whoever replaces him will have an uphill battle to fight. Current polling suggests that Labour have had anywhere from a seven-point to fourteen-point lead in the last two weeks.

What the political environment will look like at the next general elections is anyone’s guess, but if the status quo was to hold, a Tory party victory on the scale of 2019 seems unlikely.

Jon Fellowes is a freelance journalist, blogger, content creator, and scriptwriter. Regularly writing on politics, music, film/TV and culture, his bylines include Manchester Evening News, Birmingham Live, MyLondon, Bristol Live, and many others.

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