UK Politics

A fortune cookie for 2021 – Conservatives – annus horibilus

A year ago the future, and the path to a fifth successive Conservative victory, looked straightforward. Eighty seats – not a landslide but possibly a two-parliament majority, money to spend on putting more blue paint on the red wall, lots of photo opportunities “oop north” wearing yellow jackets and hard hats and a long-term solution to adult social care. Unemployment could well have fallen towards, or below, 1m.

I’m unsure when Covid-19 first appeared on my radar but it turned out to be one of MacMillan’s “events” that can either make a Prime Minister and their Government (Falklands and Thatcher) or break them (Black Wednesday and Major).

That the Conservatives finish the year level pegging with Labour in the high 30s, when they could have been higher, is entirely their own fault. I continue to believe that they’ve got more things right than wrong but the name of the game is that even if you get 99% right the opposition beat you round the head with the other 1%.

One important lesson is that any media “friends” are fair-weather, many work on the assumption that politicians are incompetent, dishonest, or both. There have been some horrendous examples of interviewers “feeding” opposition politicians anti-government answers and too much vox pop from hardcore Corbynistas – quickly exposed on social media. The other side of the coin is that worldwide coverage of the pandemic has shown that other countries have experienced similar problems and some that were once exemplars have fallen off their pedestals.

Johnson probably isn’t the ideal “war leader,” his predecessor might have been better – she spent years swimming in treacle at the Home Office. His Captain Mainwaring has sometimes over-promised and under-delivered, claiming that the, then, forthcoming test and trace system would be “world beating” was, at best, ill advised.

One thing is clear, the government has perfected a detector for banana skins – which they then step on. Cummingsgate, Marcus Rashford and exam results, amongst others, were all poorly handled and reflected in the opinion polls. It’s often the case that peacetime military commanders have the wrong skillset for war and campaigners may not be suited to government.

The departure of Cummings may be a blessing as he reportedly had a low opinion of backbenchers, it’s better to take people with you than for granted.

As 2020 draws to a welcome end Johnson and his government are, although bloodied and bruised, still standing.

Whether his leftie haters like it or not he is a success and part of their problem is that were he, as a metropolitan liberal humanities graduate, to be “profiled” he’d probably be assumed to be a leftie remainer, not a Conservative Brexiteer who has repeatedly given them a bloody nose. Instead of hurling abuse and blaming the electorate they’d be better advised to look in the mirror and seriously analyse how he twice won the London mayoralty, was a key player in securing Brexit and completed the demolition of the “red wall”.

He finishes the year on a high with over a million vaccinations done, the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine approved and a generally well received trade deal with the EU in place.

Although 2020 has been dire the challenges of 2021 are enormous. The vaccination programme will be closely scrutinised by the opposition and media – is there a difference? It’s clearly better to throw the kitchen sink at getting as many jabs done as quickly as possible than have a seemingly endless cycle of lockdowns.

When the restrictions are eased and furlough finishes a full assessment of the damage will be possible. Unemployment, at over 2.5m, will probably have doubled, the decline in high streets will have accelerated and both the deficit and debt will be significantly larger. The focus of attention will become Chancellor Sunak who’s had, although with a few wobbles, a generally good year – but it’s relatively easy to be popular with an open cheque book.

In addition to the debt and deficit there are now massive backlogs in education and the NHS. Another lesson from Covid is that throwing money at problems often isn’t enough. Williamson hasn’t made the grade at Education and a priority for 2021 should be to replace him with someone who knows how to use the banana skin detector properly, May or Hunt would be my choice.

Sunak’s choices are far from easy. Much public sector “fat” was eliminated in the 2010s and it’s been entertaining to hear lefties opposing short term business tax rises, but they’ll soon be clamouring for increases in Corporation Tax, etc, etc. The best solution is, of course, economic growth but that’s not entirely under the government’s control. The Treasury’s models are probably running white hot and Sunak has to change from Santa to Scrooge.

Modern life can be a series of temporary frustrations and it will be interesting to see what the lasting memories of 2020 and the pandemic are. A lesson from Corbyn is that there can be a “tipping point”. He had a lot thrown at him in 2017 but got the benefit of the doubt. In early 2018 he followed his instincts over Salisbury and Syria and it was downhill thereafter with his previous support for the IRA being raised on the doorsteps in 2019.

Johnson has his faults – virtually everything I identified a year ago has been seen in 2020 – and he and the Conservatives clearly got the benefit of the doubt in 2019. Whenever the next election is – and it doesn’t have to be for another three years and forty-nine weeks – they’ll have to defend their record and factors such as Corbyn and Brexit will have gone, although we’ve yet to see what they make of Brexit.

A couple of days after the 2017 election I wrote that:

“Whenever the next election is the Conservatives will have learned the lessons of 2017, simple things like a few devil’s advocates involved in writing the manifesto. There might even be a new leader, it’s a party that is only interested in winning and winners, with no place for sentiment.”

That’s still true and explains how Johnson achieved the largest Conservative majority since Thatcher in 1987.

As the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel gets closer it’s clear that a fifth Conservative majority is possible.

I’m not convinced Johnson will still be there, he hasn’t had a good year and his son will be starting school in 2024. As a student of history he’ll know that only two post WW2 PMs have gone at a time of their choosing; Churchill and Wilson, although a case can be made for Blair. It may be that the men in grey suits call or he hands over, gets booted upstairs and returns to getting loadsamoney writing whimsical articles for the Torygraph. One thing is certain, history will be kind to him because, like Churchill, he will write it!