If anyone in Westminster needed a reminder that voters can’t stand political hypocrisy and self-interest, the North Shropshire by-election is a stark reminder.
Yes, governments are expected to lose by-elections mid-term.
Yes, the Government thought it might lose the seat because of the Owen Paterson lobbying scandal and the Prime Minister’s mishandling of it.
But at 34%, the scale of the swing to the Liberal Democrats has sent a shockwave through the Conservative party, seriously spooking MPs with even healthy majorities.
This was a part of the country that was pro-Brexit. What it and recent polling confirms is that support for Johnson isn’t sticky for having ‘got Brexit done’. Through the multitude of self-inflicted wounds, it has quickly ebbed away over the last month.
More people now think Labour leader Keir Starmer would make the better Prime Minister. From double digit leads in the summer the Conservatives now trail Labour on voting intention.
The calamities keep piling up. The Prime Minister must be approaching Christmas feeling exhausted, weather beaten and under siege, although probably confident he can claw things back in the new year. His biggest problem now is that he is viewed as having lost grip – over his Government, over his backbenchers and over the political narrative. Johnson is most powerful when selling an optimistic vision of the future.
The emergence of Omicron once again makes that difficult and discordant. His boosterish big spend approach is also at odds with much of his party, as is the re-imposition of restrictions to tackle the new variant. Omicron will buy him time to get his house in order. But Johnson is on probation.
If ‘Boris the brand’ is seen to have lost its shine with the public because of ongoing avoidable gaffes, the 55 Tory MPs needed to trigger a leadership contest could well be reached in the coming year. They’re not ready to get their knives out yet, but they’re checking where they are.
The road ahead in 2022 is full of potholes that could lead to the government car ending up back in the proverbial ditch. If the modelling and fears of the scientists are right, the decision to wait for more data on Omicron is likely to lead to an overwhelmed NHS and at least double the number of daily deaths seen so far.
The outcome of the investigation into Downing Street parties will either conclude that government rules and guidelines were flouted or will be labelled by political opponents as a whitewash. The public inquiry into the Government’s handling of the pandemic starts in the spring. Allegations of cronyism and sleaze will be hitting the headlines regularly throughout the year.
In May there are local elections which can be expected to reinforce the growing fear amongst many Conservative MPs that they are on a track towards defeat.
2022 also holds the prospect of inflation staying relatively high, further interest rate rises, a doubling of energy costs, all of which – along with recently announced tax rises – will hit household budgets and for many will lead to a cost-of-living crisis.
Some think Boris Johnson will decide to throw in the towel, spend more time with his newly enlarged family and earn serious money in the media and on the speaking circuit. He may, but my money is on him sticking it out.
I think he truly believes in what he is trying to achieve in government if the pandemic allows him to. And after all, this is the man who as a boy seriously wanted to be ‘king of the world’.
Power, once obtained – particularly through ambition and calculation – is rarely voluntarily discarded.