The question that Conservative MPs have to address in determining Boris Johnson’s fate is simple but stark. Are his days as an electoral asset over?
The Partygate row, which first surfaced shortly before Christmas, has now bedeviled the Government for six months. During that time, the Prime Minister and his colleagues have attempted to persuade the public that the “gatherings” that took place during lockdown were work events rather than parties, and that Mr Johnson’s attendance constituted the dutiful fulfillment of the obligations of leadership.
Trouble is, those efforts have largely failed. Most voters decided months ago that Mr Johnson knowingly attended events that broke the lockdown regulations; that he is being less than honest in claiming otherwise; and that consequently he should fall on his sword. Nothing they have heard since from the party’s arch-campaigner has done much to change their minds.
In polls conducted since the Sue Gray report, 67 per cent have told Opinium that they believe the Prime Minister intentionally broke the lockdown rules, 74 per cent have advised YouGov that he knowingly lied about the gatherings in Downing St, while ComRes has reported that 76 per cent believe he has misled the Commons over the affair. Crucially, in each case, a half or more of those who voted for Mr Johnson in December 2019 express those views.
These polling numbers largely echo those recorded in the early weeks of Partygate in December and January. Then, for example, 65 per cent advised Opinium, and 71 per cent ComRes, that the “gatherings” were not within the rules, while as many as 80 per cent told YouGov that the Prime Minister was not being honest about what had happened. Again, these perceptions were widely shared by Conservative supporters
Consequently, the call for the Prime Minister to resign has only marginally abated. Among voters as a whole, 60 per cent believe that Mr Johnson should resign, only slightly down on the figure of 63 per cent recorded in the wake of the initial allegations in December and January. Even among those who voted Conservative in 2019, as many as 33 per cent still believe he should resign, compared with 40 per cent at the height of the original revelations.
The Prime Minister’s problem is that the Downing Street gatherings touched a raw, emotional nerve among an electorate that eschewed attendance at the funerals of loved ones, let alone ever raised a glass at a work colleagues’ leaving do. We thus perhaps should not be surprised that they have largely been reluctant to accept his explanations.
In any event, the Conservative Party certainly finds itself trailing in the polls. Since the Sue Gray report they have put the party on average on 32 per cent, seven points behind Labour, and just as low as it was at the end of January. The current position stands in sharp contrast to that at the end of October – just before the Owen Paterson affair first raised questions about the Prime Minister’s ethics and probity – when the party was on 39 per cent, four points ahead of Labour.
The current poll figures imply as much as a 10 per cent swing from Conservative to Labour since the last election – enough to imperil the seats of nearly one in three Conservative MPs. Only just over half (53 per cent) of those who voted Leave in 2016 and who flocked to Boris Johnson’s banner in 2019 now say they would vote Conservative again.
It is little wonder that the party appears to be on a hiding to nothing in the Wakefield by-election, and that, with the Liberal Democrats also gradually edging up in the polls, the Tiverton and Honiton contest cannot be assumed to be safe either.
Still, most governments suffer from a bout of the mid-term “blues”, only to recover by the time of the next election. Perhaps, even those Conservatives who currently feel that they cannot support the party again will be won around in the wake of a successful resolution of the cost-of-living crisis, evidence that the country is being “levelled up”, and perhaps above all that Brexit is delivering.
That, of course, assumes that voters who do not believe Mr Johnson’s claims over Partygate will still be willing to give him an audience on these other issues. That is the judgement call with which Tory MPs have been presented.
John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University and Senior Research Fellow at NatCen Social Research and The UK in a Changing Europe