Don’t Panic!

BY STEWART SLATER

“To lose one by-election is a misfortune, to lose two looks like carelessness.”

Although widely predicted, there are signs that Conservative MPs, facing the loss of the highest-paid job most of them are “qualified” for, are rolling out their headless chicken impression or, in another avian metaphor, starting to think that by failing to dislodge the Prime Minister in the recent confidence vote, they are turkeys who have just voted for Christmas.

We cannot sugar-coat the result. Losing by elections is not ideal for governing parties, losing by-elections by large, if not quite record-breaking margins, is worse, and losing a seat which has been represented by the Conservatives since the year before Queen Victoria came to the throne is, well, I’m not quite sure how to describe that.

And yet, some context is necessary. Both elections were caused by sitting MPs being exposed (no pun intended) for sexual misdeeds (for which one of whom is currently serving a prison sentence). On the theme of law-breaking, most of us can dimly remember a minor scandal called “Partygate”. We are two years into a Parliament and the government is suffering mid-term blues. Inflation is 9% and likely to go higher. The trains are on strike, the airports are shortly to join them as are possibly teachers, NHS workers, barristers and any group of public sector workers who can rustle up a union. Given the background, it should be far less surprising that the government lost than it would have been had it won.

Despite this, professional opinion-givers (your current correspondent considers himself firmly in the amateur ranks) have dusted off their frequently recycled “The time is up for Boris” columns. His relationship with the party is purely transactional. They only tolerate him because he is a winner. Even this government, which has spun the recent industrial action as “Labour’s strikes”, would struggle to claim victory from this particular set of results. Partygate has rendered the Prime Minister toxic, and will do the same to the party if they do not take swift action. The “Never Boris” caucus, who would vote no confidence in him even if he were awarded the Victoria Cross for saving the Queen on a Ukrainian battlefield are making their usual noises about “doing the right thing” and letting the dread words, “rule changes” drop from their lips with less than totally disguised glee.

And yet, there is an asymmetry here. For all those who have sagely opined while Boris was winning that at some stage he would lose, and then he would be swiftly deposed, never seem to consider that, now that he is losing, he might again win. Those whose core argument is premised on history not working along straight lines, have now decided that it can never bend again.

For history is replete with examples of governments losing by-elections, and almost as full of governments regaining those constituencies at the next election. For all the hue and cry over the results, we do not know if they are signal – important signs of an underlying change – or noise – random fluctuations which tell us nothing about the future.

We do know that the Prime Minister is unpopular, and we do know that he is cited as a reason in many polls for people abandoning the Conservatives. It seems almost a condition of the licence for news reports to contain a vox pop from a Northern voter (flat cap and whippet preferred if not required) loudly telling a Southern reporter that they will never vote Tory again.

However, there is plentiful literature in psychology showing that people are extremely poor at predicting the future. Moreover, they are even extremely poor at anticipating their own future actions. (As a thought experiment, try to predict what you will want for dinner in seven days time). If we wish to make predictions about the outcome of a future general election, we need to factor in to our calculation that many people will not feel the same way about the issues that they do now, will not vote according to the concerns which they now consider vital, and will almost certainly choose a different party to the one they now favour.

Even if it is the case that views of Boris are baked into voters’ minds, that does not guarantee that the Conservatives will lose. For, as Tony Blair recently popped back round the U-bend to remind us, in mid-term, voters compare the actual government to a fantasy alternative which exists only in their minds. At general elections, they compare it to the real opposition. By elections, making no difference to the government of the country, can be absolute – voters ask themselves if they like the ruling party and, if they do not, vote for the Opposition. General elections are relative – voters ask themselves if party A is better than party B, and put their cross in the appropriate box. On Thursday, the question was, effectively, “Do you like Boris Johnson”, in 2024 it will be, “Do you like Keir Starmer more than Boris Johnson?”. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that, faced with the choice, the electorate, particularly Brexit voters, channel FDR, “He is a bastard, but at least he is our bastard.”

This is not to say that the Conservatives do not face severe challenges. That Labour and the Lib Dems performed well in one seat and abysmally in the other suggests a high degree of tactical voting, to the extent that some argue there are effectively now only two parties in the country – Tory and anti-Tory. Similar to 1997, voters might decide to expel the government and choose whichever vehicle is locally most likely to achieve that goal. However, back then, the outcome of the election, a Labour majority, was obvious. On current polling it is not. While Labour did well, they probably did not do well enough to form a stable government. We might reasonably ask whether, while people might not like the government, they will dislike it enough in 2024 to vote for that year’s version of “Chaos with Ed Miliband”.

Equally, while the Conservatives are currently associated with views, such as on Brexit and asylum seekers, seen as low status by many of the educated middle classes, Labour are not associated with anything in particular – a plurality of voters, for example, (in common to be fair, with most Labour MPs) are unaware of the party’s stance on the train strikes. Those whose finances allow them to consider themselves relatively immune from government policy can quite easily signal their status by stating their support for Keir Starmer’s blank slate. But will they be quite so keen when Labour fronts up about how they will pay for the goodies they doubtless intend to give away. What about the horribly declasse culture war? Surrey matrons may see themselves as impeccably right-on, but as Mumsnet shows, they are not very keen on beardy blokes in their daughters’ changing rooms.

If the situation is bad, then it is not necessarily irreparable. For Boris had led a “high amplitude” life. He has known lower lows and higher highs than most politicians. Back in January 2019, he was a busted flush and had one bet on the next Balliol scholar to be PM, Rory Stewart would have been the prohibitive favourite. We all know how that worked out. Writing Boris off has not generally been a winning strategy.

It may be that, associated with the two traumas of recent times, Brexit and Covid, Boris needs to go as a national act of catharsis, a scapegoat to be sacrificed for national healing. Or, like Henry II submitting to a public flogging by the monks of Canterbury after Becket’s murder, the by-elections are a public penance, a ritual humbling of the mighty after which normality returns. The point is, we cannot tell. Writing Boris off requires that, in this most volatile of times, voters will retain their view of this most shape-shifting of politicians. But even if they do, those who have spent months publicly, loudly and gravely touting their own integrity should ask how it looks if, having lost under the rules, they then change them to get what they want.

Stewart Slater works in Finance. He invites you to join him at his website.