Boris Johnson has endured a torrid month, with scandals, political crises and a torrent of criticism of his erratic leadership of his party and the British government. He has been embroiled in a row over the illegal financing of new wallpaper for his Downing Street residence. He has broken a promise to produce a plan to finance social care for the elderly. He has faced an upsurge in violence in Northern Ireland. He has seen relations with the European Union become mired in bitterness and recriminations. And he is now faced with the real prospect that Scotland will vote for independence and break up the United Kingdom.
Yet none of this seems to have hurt his authority or popularity with voters. To the dismay of his opponents, he recently won a resounding victory in local elections across Britain, gained a parliamentary seat from Labour, and plunged the Opposition into disarray with its leader fighting for his political life. Has the Left in Britain lost its way? Are its traditional supporters angered by its embrace of “woke” policies on racism, gender equality and scorn for old attitudes and values? Or are Boris Johnson and the ruling Conservatives benefiting from the general swing to the political right and to nationalist policies across most of Europe?
The answer is both. The Left, in Britain just as elsewhere, finds that its old class-based policies and attacks on middle-class wealth and privilege no longer appeal to young Britons. Most are eager to make money and get ahead, despite continuing inequality and racial discrimination. The Left is caught between two options: to embrace youth culture and movements such as Black Lives Matter, trans rights and the silencing of those voicing right-wing views in universities; or, alternatively, reaching out beyond the dominance of London and the richer south of England to its traditional power base in poorer, working class and socially conservative voters in the north of England – areas of post-industrial decay where the Conservatives have been gaining massive support at Labour’s expense.
At the same time the Conservatives are benefitting from a general swing to the right and a backlash, especially among older voters, against liberal ideas. Most voters are fed up with the “nanny state” and the attempt to impose equality and liberalism by banning words and phrases deemed to be hurtful to women, ethnic minorities, the disadvantaged, gay people, fat people, trans-sexuals – indeed anyone who can be seen as a “victim” of the white majority of Britons. Voters are angered by the new puritanism, which seeks to ban any humour thought to be disrespectful or plain talking that might possibly be seen as racist.
RELATED ARTICLE: Lack of will
At the same time there is a definite increase in racism – against Chinese people, blamed for bringing Covid to Britain, or against Muslim, blamed for terrorism, or against black and other ethnic groups who suffer more deprivation but also have higher rates of crime than others. The Left’s promotion of liberal tolerance has been hijacked by “politically correct” extremists. This, in turn, has strengthened right-wing white nationalists, who find their campaign against immigration or against Muslims is winning much support – as elsewhere in Europe.
Most voters do not care about the technicalities of whether Boris Johnson broke the rules when he got Conservative donors to pay for the redecoration of his flat. It is potentially a serious issue, which could lead to criminal charges. But voters do not care, and nor does Johnson seem to either. The growing row in Northern Ireland over the new Brexit deal that keeps the province within the European single market and imposes the need for customs inspection on goods from England has also not disturbed most voters. There has been conflict in Northern Ireland for almost 50 years, and voters elsewhere blame the loyalist Protestants for starting up sectarian attacks on republican Catholics again.
Many British diplomats and government officials are horrified at the growing gulf between Britain and its former partners in the EU, which is reflected in a huge number of petty new regulations imposed on Britons hoping to travel abroad or to continue trading easily with Britain’s former EU partners. But voters blame the EU, not the government, for the problems which the Brexit deal has caused. There is certainly a lack of goodwill on both sides at the moment – which was highlighted by the fury in Brussels over Britain’s fast pace of vaccinations compared to the lack of vaccines in Europe two months ago. And Boris Johnson has turned this to his advantage – waving the flag of nationalism and Britain’s new “freedom” from Brussels.
Finally, there is the problem of Scotland’s continued strong push for independence from the rest of the United Kingdom. This is potentially the biggest threat to the British state any government has faced since Irish independence a century ago. The Scottish nationalists won more seats in the recent local elections, though fell one seat short of an overall majority under the proportional system of voting. But Nicola Sturgeon, the fiery first minister, has promised to hold a second referendum on independence soon, and is challenging London to try to stop it, even though it may not be legal.
Again, Johnson – who is personally deeply unpopular in Scotland – is shrugging off the challenge. He knows that Scotland would suffer deep economic difficulties if it were to break the link with London. There would be no more economic subsidies from Westminster. The Scots would not be allowed to use the same currency, and they would have to apply to rejoin the EU and use the euro – which would take many years, even if all the EU members agreed. And crucially the revenue from North Sea oil is shrinking fast as the oilfields run dry and the demand for oil falls. Johnson, and many others in the rest of the United Kingdom, believe that the Scots have only themselves to blame if they vote for independence and find it has hurt their future.
All these problems would be a challenge for any government in normal times. But the pandemic has changed the equation. And the one thing that has gone well, after a year of clumsy bungling and a high number of Covid deaths, has been the vaccination programme. More than two thirds of Britons are now vaccinated, and most people are looking forward to foreign holidays and the full relaxation of the lockdown restrictions next month. Things could still go wrong – the new Indian variant of the coronavirus could create a third wave of infections with the need for new restrictions. But so far Johnson’s government has benefitted from the general feeling of relief that at last things are going better. And this has boosted his popularity and that of the government at a time when the Opposition is unable to use the pandemic as a political weapon against him.
RELATED ARTICLE: Living under the shadow of a pandemic
The loss of so many local seats by Labour has caused a crisis in the party. There are many who want to oust the leader, Sir Keir Starmer, for being too dull and too bland. But a swing back to left-wing politics would not win voters. Nor is an alternative leader available. The big question now is: what does the Opposition stand for? What policies would re-engage young radical voters as well as old traditional Labour supporters? As long as there are no answers, Johnson seems secure and almost unscathed by a host of problems or a loss of Conservative support that, in a more normal year, might have forced him to resign.
Follow us at @OfficeWeek on Twitter and The Ukrainian Week on Facebook