Britain’s ruling Conservatives are banking heavily on the star quality of their leader, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who’s had an uncanny ability in the past to connect with voters and to cheer them up.
He’s struggled on the campaign trail for next month’s highly contentious election, however, and, surprisingly, he hasn’t prospered in several encounters with voters, prompting commentators to query whether the shine has worn off Boris or whether Britons are wearying of his knockabout style.
His election earlier this year as leader by the Conservatives, who view themselves as the natural party of government, was partly driven by the idea that the ever-upbeat, mop-haired former London mayor and journalist could secure them a parliamentary majority by casting his political spell, dashing around the fractious country with an invigorating message and cheery rhetoric laden with quips and jokes and endearing gaffes.
Hardline anti-European Union Conservatives also saw Johnson as the best bet to break the three-year logjam in Parliament over Britain’s planned and messy departure from the EU, and to be the one to actually “deliver Brexit.”
However, the much-vaunted Johnson magic hasn’t so far been the spell-binding force of old in an election that’s the most unpredictable in years, thanks to Brexit, the fracturing of the country’s main parties, and the emergence of new ones.
Torrential rain hasn’t helped. Midweek, Johnson, dressed as though he were out for a day’s hunting on an aristocratic estate, faced angry voters in the deluged English regions of Yorkshire, Derbyshire, the east Midlands and Lincolnshire, where flood defenses failed once again failed to prevent rivers from breaching their banks and flooding homes and businesses.
Shortly after arriving in the sodden Yorkshire town of Stainforth, as a hundred soldiers were deployed to help shore up the failing flood defenses, one middle-aged woman resident stopped briefly to tell Johnson, “I’m not very happy about talking to you, so, if you don’t mind, I’ll just mope on with what I’m doing.”
Pushing her wheelbarrow by bemused soldiers and the startled, mumbling Johnson, she added, “You’ve not helped us … I don’t know what you’re here today for.”
A townsman shouted at him, “You’ve took your time, Boris, haven’t you?” Johnson’s sheepish response, “We’ve been on it round the clock,” didn’t assuage the man. The day before Johnson inexplicably announced the flooding wasn’t sufficiently bad to call a “national emergency.”
“Campaigning as a maverick challenger and campaigning as the sitting prime minister are two very different things,” a member of his election team acknowledged privately to VOA.
Autumn and winter floods have become ever more frequent in England — the consequence of climate change, according to scientists, overdevelopment and neglect of infrastructure by successive governments. Johnson can hardly be blamed that once again the flood defenses failed, ruining homes and endangering businesses. However, the government’s slow response in getting the army to help and Johnson’s late arrival in deluged regions, a day after his main rivals, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn and the Liberal Democrats’ Jo Swinson, had visited, was less than sure-footed.
It was especially surprising as Johnson’ electoral strategy is based on pulling off something that evaded his Conservative predecessor, Theresa May, at the last general election less than two years ago — winning over some of the Labour Party’s heartland working-class constituencies in the north of England and the Midlands, which voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum. The Conservatives need to make inroads with these voters to compensate for the likely loss of pro-EU seats in the south of England and London, where the Liberal Democrats and Labour are likely to do well. Liberal Democrats would ditch Brexit, Labour would negotiate a new deal and hold a second referendum offering a choice between their exit deal and remaining as a full EU member.
An 11th-hour bid by the Conservatives to dissuade Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party from running candidates in Labour’s heartland northern seats, where they’re likely to split the anti-EU vote, failed Thursday, complicating Johnson’s path to victory.
Johnson on Thursday was accused of running scared by refusing to meet members of the public during a visit to Somerset, where he was trying to bolster the campaigns of Conservatives, also known as Tories, against strong Liberal Democrat challenges. In the market town of Taunton he was heckled as he visited a school and a scheduled stop-off at a nearby bakery was shelved.
On paper, though, Johnson should be able to secure a comfortable parliamentary majority. The Conservatives have a 14% lead over Labour, the country’s main opposition party, which under Jeremy Corbyn has lurched far to the left, and which is running on an aggressive renationalization and tax-the-rich manifesto.
Corbyn is also less the firebrand on the campaign trial than he was in the last election, when Labour benefited from a late surge to confound the pollsters and the Conservatives. The Labour leader’s popularity rating in the opinion polls has slumped to a historic minus 48%, 43 points lower than Johnson, who himself has a dismal approval rating of minus 5%. Only Swinson is in positive territory.
Nonetheless with a big lead over Labour Johnson looks to be safe.
“If current polling and anecdotal evidence from doorstep campaigning is correct, Mr Johnson ought comfortably to secure the majority he seeks on December 12,” notes Jeremy Warner, a commentator for the pro-Conservative Daily Telegraph.
However, few pollsters are confident even about their own opinion polls, especially as most were wrong about about the past two elections. Brexit has turned Britain into a politically tumultuous country — old allegiances have been upended, a wide generation gap has been exposed, with younger voters shifting left and older voters shifting right. With the emergence of new political groups and the reinvigoration of the centrist and pro-EU Liberal Democrats there could be some big surprises on election night. The number of variables in play makes it especially hard to predict what will happen.
The winter weather also poses a huge danger for the ruling Conservatives — as the flooding demonstrated this week. Governments traditionally have avoided calling elections in the winter — this is the first since 1974, when the sitting Labour government made moderate gains but failed to obtain an overall majority. In the last December election, in 1923, the ruling Conservatives also failed to secure a majority in the House of Commons.
The problem for any government is that voters tend to be grumpier in the winter with the darkness and poor weather — a feel-good factor tends to play more favorably for the party in power, but when voters are unhappy they are more likely to punish their rulers, say pollsters.
According to Rob Parsons, political editor of the right-leaning Yorkshire Post, the floods “risk washing away Tory hopes of taking the north.”
Another winter-related factor that poses a threat to the Conservatives is the National Health Service, already a key election issue with both the Conservatives and Labour vying with each other over who will spend more on Britain’s hospitals. Lengthy wait times because of winter illnesses such as flu will inevitably be blamed on the government, according to pollsters.