Will Boris Johnson’s popularity make us has-beens?

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I’m told that Boris Johnson was a positive factor in voters’ preferences at the last election. Apparently, it wasn’t just a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, they actually liked the captain of the ship.

To many of us, Boris Johnson is either a clown, a liar, or worse and therefore not exactly Prime Ministerial material. Not so, I hear; he is just the sort of chap an aspirational working class lad or lass would admire.

Not so much the public school boy, unkempt toff or even likable rogue. No, he is “the very model of a modern major general”. – Someone to lead us all into a post-Brexit national renewal – England’s green and pleasant land. Notwithstanding the record of his predecessors, he is the salvation of the Conservative Party, embracing the new dawn.

If this is the case, even with a sizeable minority of voters, we’re all doomed. We might as well attend the Cummings’ school for the cunning and forget about social justice, equality and the vulnerable. In green and pleasant lands you do not have to be concerned about climate change, equality or migration. This will all be dealt with by a super hero. No need to worry.

This is the scale of the defeat meted on social democracy by the last election. This is the real world into which we have fallen and through which we must navigate.

There are no prizes for finishing second, no silver medals to take home. If you don’t win, you can’t call the shots. Your efforts may be appreciated back home and if you continue to try hard, representation in local government may be yours.

There is no doubt that this can be the bedrock for victory in a general election. It has been before. But, as we move into an increasingly connected and immediate national network of influence, will the bedrock turn to quicksand under us? Will we become the has-beens?

* Garth Shephard is Chair of St Austell & Newquay local party.

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  • In a country where people who break into it are feted rather than immediately returned and I can be fined five grand if the council finds out I have fitted a window without their permission, what do you expect?

  • Simon McGrath 10th Feb '20 - 4:19pm

    Can anyone explain what the point of this article is?

  • Paul Barker 10th Feb '20 - 4:45pm

    Early days yet, lets wait to see the results of The Local Elections in May & the Trade Negotiations over the Summer.

  • Labour had a confused ridiculous Brexit mess and the Lib Dems foolishly thought they had the Remain vote already banked. The Tory line was simple.GET BREXIT DONE and it worked very well for them. Labour got smashed and the Lib Dems slipped further into the void. What a mess.

  • nvelope2003 10th Feb '20 - 4:51pm

    Simon McGrath: Your comment explains why the Liberal Democrats are unsucessful and the Conservatives are winning. The EU was not responsible for all the dislike of regulations but they got the blame. It is easier to blame foreigners for everything that goes wrong but things will still go wrong and the Conservatives will get the blame next time. A Labour MP who opposed the renationalisation of the railways said that it would mean the Government not the train operators would get the blame when things went wrong and he was right.
    Arms length is a good place to be, especially when you are the one really responsible.

  • Garth – time and events are not kind to our politicians, and Johnson’s premiership is still in its infancy. Take a look at the popularity ratings of John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May on the day they walked into Downing Street, and then on the day they left it.

  • We had Cameron and Clegg if people here remember that 🙁 followed by Cameron, the man who reformed the EU, followed by Mrs May, for whom, Brexit didn’t mean Brexit and now we have Boris.

    After that lot, Boris might do well by comparison but the bar is set pretty low. Give the man a chance before we all pass judgement. It could have been Corbyn.

  • Stop press: Conservative PM wins highest approval rating since Churchill…

    Not Johnson but Major in January 1991. He obviously went on to just scrape a win in 92 and lead the Tories to one of their worst defeats ever in 1997.

    In the last poll of the election Johnson had a -11% approval rating

    So you can’t tell – the context each general election is different.

    At the moment though I think the Tories will win the next election and Trump will win in November in America.

  • Reality says we have been has been at the last 3 general elections. If Starmer is the new Labour leader what place will there be for us.
    ASfraid it is the doldrums yet again.

  • Andrew Tampion 10th Feb '20 - 5:38pm

    Maybe it is because Boris Johnson is or appears to be an enthusiastic and optimistic person who loves his country and thinks that it has a great future. Consider for example his speech at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich: can you imagine Jo Swinson making such a speech. Thought not. Contrasted this with most pro EU advocates who appear to be a bunch of Eeyores singing a rousing chorus of that well known football chant “You’re …. and you know you are” but at their own side. Just saying.

  • Garth Shephard 10th February 2020 – 3:30 pm:
    To many of us, Boris Johnson is either a clown, a liar, or worse and therefore not exactly Prime Ministerial material.

    He’s no clown. He’s one of the most intelligent, if not the most intelligent, men in the House of Commons. As such he’s a misfit. The ‘buffoonery’ is just an act, most likely learnt in childhood, in an attempt to fit in. Not everyone insults him the same way…

    ‘Boris Johnson: The liberal cosmopolitan case to Vote Leave’ [May 2016]:

    I am pleased that this campaign has so far been relatively free of personal abuse – and long may it so remain – but the other day someone insulted me in terms that were redolent of 1920s Soviet Russia. He said that I had no right to vote Leave, because I was in fact a “liberal cosmopolitan”.

    That rocked me, at first, and then I decided that as insults go, I didn’t mind it at all – because it was probably true.

  • Johnny McDermott 10th Feb '20 - 6:38pm

    “We might as well attend the Cummings’ school for the cunning and forget about social justice, equality and the vulnerable.”
    That school can be attended, in part at least, by anyone, regardless of political philosophy underpinning it. We need to be less squimish about adopting his more successful tactics to do exactly what you’re saying and aim to win.
    Until then, I think with Ed at the helm, we can build bridges in many directions: with the Greens on the Environment, with Labour or even the dreaded “Tories” when they’re making sense. These bridges can be made into coalitions – vote winning coalitions – sometimes. It won’t always work. It didn’t when we had the chance to seize power via a goverment of national unity and let Cummings hold onto it instead. Whatever you think of him, he recognised exactly what you do: the need for that power (first No 10, then majority with Parliament reaffirmed as supreme by Lady Hale) to drive through a radical policy like Brexit.
    We should aim to win, but in a realistic manner. If we build bridges and coalitions, we can start making an impact and show we can mediate at a time when political divisions are entrenched, polar opposites of each other. The centre may not be sexy (we should think about that, though – in the same way you’ve identified the likeability of Johnson those that disdain him just cannot see) but it’s closer to what real individuals feel. Centred, swinging left or right to varying extremes on individual issues. We may not have the numbers or momentum, but we can relate to just about everyone, some of the time. We need to start doing that and repair some of the damage our “won’t play with others” (with clout)/ “in it to win it” attitude that failed us during run up to and during GE. This is absolutely vital for one major policy area to come back to the fore since December: proportional representation. The victors will never vote for their own demise. Strong relations with all parties (at least *parts* of all parties) is essential if electoral reform is ever to become anything more than a pipe dream.

  • David Evans 10th Feb '20 - 7:06pm

    The question is Martin, what do you mean by ‘between moderately well and very well’ in terms of winning seats? In the 1990s and 2000s it would have meant 20 to 25 gains. This time we are so far behind in most of those 80 seats you refer to, I think we would be very lucky to get ten gains and more likely be in the range one to five.

    What do you think it would mean?

  • Brian Edmonds 10th Feb '20 - 8:01pm

    Time to stop acting like headless chickens and admit the bitter truth – under FPTP we have no prospect of ‘winning’ a general election. In this respect there is no point in spending the next five years trying to compete in the current race to the bottom, in the vain hope that we may one day be part of a future coalition. I propose that the time has come to recast ourselves, along with the Greens, as a voice of reason, and develop cogent, intelligent policies on the full range of important issues, in the hope that the Tories will eventually steal them. That way we might indirectly get things done and avoid a pointless resort to the odious sloganeering required to ingratiate ourselves with what passes for the great British electorate.

  • There is a lazy assumption here that a moderate middle-class leader will reverse Labour’s misfortunes. It worked with Blair, why not Starmer? As I say, that is a lazy assumption, and there is a problem with it. Labour’s middle-class vote held up in December 2019. In fact, it increased slightly in some places. Labour’s partial collapse was caused by a huge chunk of the non-metropolitan white working-class defecting to the Tories. What, exactly, could Starmer do to correct that? What, pray tell me, could Starmer do to win back Scotland? Remember, without Scotland, Labour has to win a landslide in England and Wales to get a majority. There are people in the Labour Party who probably could appeal to the non-metropolitan white working-class, but they are not standing for the leadership. And if Labour did try to appeal to that demographic – by becoming xenophobic and socially conservative – that would alienate much of its middle-class support, which is what happened in 2005 over the Iraq war. As Martin points out, Starmer would probably help the Liberal Democrats by being less threatening to centre-right voters than Corbyn, Foot or Kinnock, and he would be focusing on parts of the country with little Lib Dem interest.

    Andrew Tampion wrote: “Maybe it is because Boris Johnson is or appears to be an enthusiastic and optimistic person who loves his country and thinks that it has a great future.”

    Well, precisely. The names AH and BM spring to mind. They were only loved for a while, remember, and only ever by the gullible and the malevolent.

    Jeff: What is your justification for claiming that Johnson is the most intelligent man in the House of Commons? He may be more intelligent than Jeremy Corbyn, but if you put him up against a professional arguer, such as a barrister or a top newspaper columnist, and without Cummings there to protect him, I suspect he will wilt. The most intelligent people master detail, snd they have convincing answers to difficult questions. They only tell lies when they know they cannot be found out. Ask yourself why Johnson avoids scrutiny at all cost. Does it have something to do with his habit of not answering questions, blustering and talking gibberish?

  • Alex Macfie 10th Feb '20 - 8:36pm

    Johnson reminds me of the boys who were rude and cruel to me at the private school I attended for part of my schooling. Of course they were the “popular” kids. And that is the problem: many people are naturally attracted to Johnson’s type of arrogant, bullying swagger. This tends to mean I question their moral compass, and the reason they like him is that they are attracted to power, and like to be in a “popular zone”.

    So I absolutely despise him and those like him, and find it troubling that people would consider voting for that sort of person. But this is all the more reason to see him defeated, and it really does depend on who his opponent is. Johnson was lucky in that his principal opponent was Jeremy Corbyn. A more charismatic, dynamic, relatable Labour leader would have wiped the floor with Johnson — Keir Starmer for instance. And BTW on Lib Dem prospects with a Starmer-led Labour party, Martin is right and theakes is wrong — Corbyn’s unpopularity among Lib Dem-Tory waverers was probably the biggest factor pulling the Lib Dem vote down in 2019.

    It’s absurd and defeatist to suppose that Johnson will always be popular. People like him slip up easily. Other politicians who have had cult-like followings that are inexplicable to their detractors include Zac Goldsmith and Ken Livingstone, both of whom lost popularity after slipping up. Goldsmith was once very popular in his old constituency of Richmond Park, because many people saw him as a small-L liberal despite his party label. A combination of his racist London Mayoral election campaign, his vanity-driven by-election stunt and his support for Brexit tarnished his image irretrievably. Livingstone was once so popular he was able to win the Mayoralty as an Independent against the official Labour candidate. His shine had probably gone by 2008 when he lost to Johnson (again, maybe a fresher Labour candidate would have won), and his ill-judged comments about Zionism since then have completed his fall from hero to zero.

    Johnson CAN be defeated, and we have 4½–5 years to build a force against him.

  • As I implied Martin, and as we discovered in 2019, seats are what really matter. A small percentage gain in vote could easily be accompanied by a loss of seats if we have too many incumbents standing down, as it did last year.

    But entering your chosen domain, on what basis do you think a rise in our percentage vote share to the mid 20s is in any way reasonable? That would require an increase of 13% – a figure we have never achieved in over 100 years. Our best have been in 1983 when we went up by 11.6% – turbo-charged by the one off arrival of the SDP alliance, and in Feb 1974 when we gained 11.8%, backed up by five by election wins in the previous parliament – something that definitely won’t happen in this parliament. Every other has been less than 5%.

    All in all, I can only see fantasy dreams in your mid 20s figure – a fault our party has returned to every year for the last eight years as a distraction as things have drifted downwards in the real world. 🙁

    But if you have some evidence that such a rise has happened for us in the past, I would be interested to hear it. 🙂

  • Discussing possible Party vote shares in a GE which is 4 to 5 years away is a pointless exercise since:
    a) This early on it is just pure speculation. After all who, for example, would have predicted that a Party which had flatlined at around 8% for 8 years would suddenly bounce up to 20% in late May 2019 and fairly suddenly drop back to 11.4% by December?
    b) Vote %’s are in any case only a part of what counts. What really matters is the quality of the Target Seat operation which turns whatever national vote share is attained into actual winning Constituency concentrations. In 1997 for example our vote share fell by 1% compared to 1992 but we more than doubled our number of MP’s to 46 due to a good Target Seat operation. In 2010 on the other hand a 1% increase in vote share was matched by a net loss of 5 seats which at that point was the biggest net loss since 1970.
    Good Targeting in 1997, 2001 and 2005 saw us successively attain our record highest number of MP’s in the last century. Let’s hope it is not another century before we pass the high of 62 MP’s elected in 2005.

    In 2019 of course a near 50% increase in our vote (from a 7.4% national share to a 11.4% share) actually saw us end up with one seat less. Speculative ‘Targeting’ of many seats we had never remotely come near winning proved not to be the best way of electing MP’s. Who would have thought it?

  • David Becket 10th Feb '20 - 10:49pm

    It is not Boris that will make us has-beens it is our own failure to sort ourselves out, learn from the lessons of a disastrous campaign, promote social, environmental and health contracts and show leadership or we will be yesterdays party. Currently we are wandering around with no apparent leadership or direction and a web site that should be closed down. I dread to think of the rate we are losing members.
    We have not got long to sort this out.

  • Tony Greaves 10th Feb '20 - 11:18pm

    For heaven’s sake. Can we discuss something useful please?

  • Richard Underhill 10th Feb '20 - 11:31pm

    Forecasting election numbers and coalition negotiations is a mug’s game, for which I apologise. Irish historians have delved into the origins of FF as they thought through the transition to democracy, so an FF PM with SF support is possible. The way to read the runes is to follow the choices made by SF voters in choosing preferences.
    STV is not a proportional system, it empowers the voter and is therefore good for democracy while party-list PR empowers party leaders and their whips.

  • Richard Underhill 10th Feb '20 - 11:44pm

    The question should be
    Will Labour come to their senses? They obviously need a leader with leadership qualities
    If they choose Keir Starmer we would be able to talk to them, Paddy was able to talk to Blair, which might be anathema to some voters in their leadership election. They are still regretting the loss of some spending programmes authorised by Gordon Brown, a nominal socialist, but someone who committed Labourites found difficulty in working with, hence “You lot are knackered.”

  • Andrew Tampion

    “Boris Johnson is or appears to be an enthusiastic and optimistic person who loves his country and thinks that it has a great future”

    Absolutely spot on. The Labour and the Lib Dem leadership spent most of the GE campaign informing the public how we couldn’t possibly manage on our own outside the EU. They told us how other countries would not be interested in trade deals with little old Britain. The joy and excitement from Corbyn or Swinson if the lunchtime news announced Barclays were moving 30 jobs to Dublin was shameful. In the near term both parties will have new leaders, but will anything change? The Labour party possibly, but the Lib Dems – I doubt it, I just don’t see any proper leaders.

  • I wouldn’t oversell Johnson’s popularity (at least as of today). The 2019 election was really a gift for the Conservatives. Conservatives got a modest 1.4% vote increase which translated to a lot of seats due to Labour’s collapse.

    That said, he’s clearly planned on how to get power, and will want to keep it (see what happens to the media and BBC…). I don’t underestimate him at all – he’s a chameleon who knows what people want to see and hear. Based on what we’ve seen so far, I’m not expecting much of actual substance.

    For LDs, the same problems around core narrative, being a third/fourth party etc exist. Better work out ways around those rather than focusing too much on Johnson.

  • Bad news keeps coming. Firstly we have lots of red tape in trade not a recipe for more trade, secondly we have the retail sector stating there is little sign of a Boris bounce. There have also been very few sightings of unicorns or faries although people have reported a number of people dressed in tin foil on bikes claiming to be riding blood red unicorns and others dancing down the highways and byways claiming to be Mavis the fairy who will be able to fly as soon as they lose a few pound’s.

  • Alex Macfie 11th Feb '20 - 8:28am

    David Becket: Please do not call him “Boris”. You (or I assume that was you anyway) wrote a very sensible letter to the i paper on Monday about how the Coalition should not have been a “love-in”. But referring to Johnson by his stage-name is a sort of a love-in. It’s buying into his brand, and to do so will hold us back. We don’t refer to “Theresa” or “David”, so we should not say “Boris”.
    David Evams: How can you be so sure that as many as 5 by-election wins “definitely won’t happen in this parliament”? I’m sure the same would have been thought 2 months after the 1970 election. This government could become unpopular very quickly, and we then need to be there to beinefit from it. Provided, of course, we don’t refer to its leader as “Boris”.

  • Alex Macfie 11th Feb '20 - 8:30am

    Maybe this is another “devil’s advocate” post?

  • John Marriott 11th Feb '20 - 8:44am

    @Tony Greaves
    I’m 110% with you, Your Lordship. With Labour it was “Education, Education, Education”. With the Tories it was “Brexit, Brexit, Brexit”. With the Lib Dems it appears to be “Speculation, Speculation, Speculation”.

  • Julian Tisi 11th Feb '20 - 9:24am

    @ Andrew Tampion
    “Maybe it is because Boris Johnson is or appears to be an enthusiastic and optimistic person who loves his country and thinks that it has a great future.”
    I think this is the most useful comment above; I glazed over many of the others. Boris is nothing if not an optimist that wants to be your friend. He promoted a positive, simple message that resonated. The rest is detail. How this will look when his optimism comes crashing against the rocks of reality is a different matter. We’re not doomed yet!

  • Denis Loretto 11th Feb '20 - 10:40am

    The simple truth is that it all depends on how the UK and it’s people across the board do in a post EU situation. If the answer is pretty well, Johnson & Co are vindicated and will reap the benefits. We will still regret the change but have to admit that we exaggerated the malign consequences of brexit. If brexit turns out to be severely negative the opposite will be the case. Let’s wait and see.
    I reckon there will always be a place for a truly liberal party but the size and influence it attains depend upon events – dear boy.

  • lloyd harris 11th Feb '20 - 10:45am

    I can’t predict the future but I do know that things will be very different in two years time. The transition period would have ended and the reality will have bitten in on what it is like outside of the EU be it for the good or bad.

    Next general election is almost certainly in May 2024 so now we should focus on building our local government base, building our activist base and building a party that puts winning seats at its heart.

  • Peter Martin 11th Feb '20 - 11:29am

    @ Alex,

    ‘Please do not call him “Boris”.

    There’s not a lot anyone can do to stop it. But, is it that much of an asset? Mrs Thatcher was often referred to as “Maggie” or “Hilda”. It didn’t necessarily imply approval. If we had a prominent “Doris” then that’s how she would be known. You ask why not David or Theresa? There are lots of Davids – so that wouldn’t work. Not so many Theresas but there is Theresa Villiers.

    Maybe we should be thankful there is only one Boris!

  • Re the Boris thing,
    I seem to remember that “I agree with Nick” and “call me Dave” were also things. What is going on is the result the popular, mostly in left leaning circles, belief that if you alter language you alter perception. More often than not, all that really happens is people start using the replacement word in the same way they used the old one, thus altering the use of the word rather than the concept behind the use of the word. This is why word flagging leads to an ever expanding data base of flagged rather than to a new consciousness or the end of the ideas behind those words. Not calling Johnson “Boris” will not really achieve anything very much. It will not make him less popular with his voters, or stop him from being PM or increase support for his opponents.

  • The consequences of Labour and Lib Dem weakness and foolishness is going to hurt this country in ways we probably can’t predict. Labour spending years fighting amongst itself and the Lib Dems forever tainted with the terrible Coalition. The future looks bleak for Labour but almost catastrophic for the Lib Dems.

  • Am I correct in thinking that this is the only party that is ideologically wedded to the EU? What I mean is approving of sovereignty sharing as opposed to seeing it as a loss of sovereignty. Approving of ever closer union perhaps embracing federalism and happy to join the Eurozone when inevitably it will be necessary.

    Labour was dead against the EU not so long ago but then harboured visions of a Europe wide powerful union movement that could bring the continent to a halt if desired. Currently it is the emloyment laws on workers rights that they find attractive. I don’t see Labour as being big supporters of the EU dream in the same way as this party.

    If the party is looking for a way to differentiate itself that could be one way, though not my personal favourite.

  • Peter 11th Feb ’20 – 4:50pm:
    Am I correct in thinking that this is the only party that is ideologically wedded to the EU?

    Both of the constituent parties which formed the Lib Dems continue in rump form and both advocated a Leave vote in the Referendum so one wonders where such an ideology would have come from. It seems to me that the party has been hijacked by a faction of EU-fanatics in a similar manner to the way Momentum have taken over Labour. The party now resembles a quasi-religious movement and the near third of former Lib Dem supporters who voted Leave have effectively been excommunicated.

    The Liberal Party: International Issues: European Union:

    The Liberal Party opposed the European Union as currently constituted. In particular, we opposed the concept of a Single European Currency, harmonisation of taxes and any move towards a Single European Army. […]

    Having had the referendum in 2016 we believe all MPs should ensure the outcome of the referendum be respected.

    Social Democrats: BREXIT:

    First and foremost, we are democrats. The SDP stands behind the 2016 referendum mandate. We consider the nation state to be the upper limit of democracy. The European Union is not and never will be a social democratic enterprise.

  • Jeff, very interesting. I must admit that I have been confused about Liberal/ SDP history and the outcome regarding the EU, though the current LD view is not in doubt.

    Hope you have your tin hat ready.

  • Alex Macfie 11th Feb '20 - 8:57pm


    “Lib Dems forever tainted with the terrible Coalition”

    For a long time after the collapse of the Wilson-Callaghan administration of 1974, the Tories successfully scared voters with memories of “the last Labour government”, and the spectre of a left-wing Labour government. But in 1997, these scare tactics didn’t work. It helped that the Labour shadow team under Tony Blair had very few people who had been involved in the previous Labour government. And the law of diminishing returns also applied. But also, Tony Blair approached questions about Labour’s past by saying that he was going to talk about what a future Labour government would do, not about Militant / Winter of Discontent / Foot / whatever other bogey the Right wanted to thrown at him. Lib Dems need to take the same sort of approach (ideally with a leader unconnected to the Coalition), and that way we might be able to cast off the shackles of the recent past.

  • David Becket 11th Feb '20 - 9:15pm

    @Alex Macfie
    It was I
    Sorry, I’ll stick with de Pfeffel in future.

  • Julian Tisi 12th Feb '20 - 1:18pm

    Peter 11th Feb ’20 – 4:50pm:
    Am I correct in thinking that this is the only party that is ideologically wedded to the EU?

    The Lib Dems have been pro-European since their formation. Why? So many reasons, but it links to our open view of the world and our internationalism, rather than any love of the particular institutions. As you say, we have a different view on sovereignty; rather than seeing it as akin to virginity (you either have it or you’ve lost it) we see it as a broader ability to control our destiny. Looked at that way, where a law is made in common with EU partners, sovereignty has been both lost and gained – we don’t have the final say on our own but we now have significant influence over our close partners which we did not have before. As a large EU member Britain almost always got its way (and on the big issues we had a veto). Compare that to life outside the EU, we will find ourselves affected by and almost certainly having to comply with certain EU laws but with now no say in shaping them.

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