James Frayne: Can Johnson survive as Prime Minister? Here’s what the polls tell us.

15 Feb

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

In June 2019, I analysed Boris Johnson’s polling numbers in detail in this column. You can read it here.

Given we regularly hear Johnson is irrevocably damaged amongst voters, it is helpful to repeat the exercise. So, what do the polls show? With the voters, is it all over?

Should he resign?

Starting with the most current question: should the PM resign? In the middle of January, YouGov showed by 64 per cent to 20 per cent people thought Johnson should resign. Only the scale of this result is important; like favourability, this is a question which invites partisanship and prime ministers are often in negative territory.

YouGov ran this question from his earliest days as PM, showing more people wanted him to remain as PM until the summer of 2021, when the numbers changed and where they have stayed ever since. Those identifying as Conservative changed their mind – saying he should resign – in January; working-class voters changed their mind in November.

A useful reality check, however: not everyone thinks he’s doing a bad job. In January, YouGov published a poll of party members showing they thought he should stay by 59-34; by 61-38 members said he was doing a good job as PM.

Performance as PM

On the straight question about performance: on January 13, YouGov showed people thought Johnson was doing badly rather than well as PM by 73-22. (Again, only the scale of the result is important.) He slipped into negative territory with those identifying as Conservative in December and in January he was in negative territory by 50-46.

At the end of January, Ipsos-Mori showed people were dissatisfied rather than satisfied at Johnson’s performance by 70-24. In early February, Deltapoll showed the public thought Johnson was doing badly by 68-29.

Johnson v Starmer

Although it’s all relative, Johnson’s numbers look better when he is compared directly with Keir Starmer. Deltapoll had Johnson and Starmer effectively tied on who would make the best PM at the start of this month (36-35 in favour of Starmer).

Other polls show a larger Starmer lead. Currently, YouGov’s tracker shows more people say Starmer would make a better PM than Johnson by 35-25 (the numbers saying “don’t know” are very high). Ipsos-Mori’s “Political Monitor” at the end of January put Starmer ahead on who would make the most capable PM by 49-31.

The nature of these results suggest Starmer’s lead reflects the deterioration in Johnson’s position, rather than people coming round to Starmer: Johnson had a consistent lead for a long period, until November 2021 when things started to go badly for Johnson and Starmer’s own favourability ratings are also in negative territory (in January, he was viewed unfavourably by 52-33; Deltapoll has a negative rating for Starmer but it’s smaller).

Ipsos-Mori’s recent February “UK Political Pulse” research compared Johnson and Starmer on a range of attributes, asking whether particular attributes “applied” to either. Johnson scored positively on “he has a lot of personality”, and negatively on everything else – particularly on honesty, attention to detail, whether he is in touch with ordinary people, and whether puts the needs of the country first. Starmer scored positively on “understands the problems facing Britain”, on capability, and whether he puts the needs of the country first.

Johnson v Sunak

YouGov’s members’ poll in January revealed that 46 per cent of members think Rishi Sunak would make a better PM than Johnson, compared to 16 per cent who think he would be worse and 30 per cent who think he would be much the same.

Arguably this is encouraging for Johnson: 46 per cent think Sunak would be better, while 46 per cent think Sunak would be the same or worse. For Liz Truss, the figures were 39/ 22/ 27 per cent respectively.

Ipsos Mori’s UK Political Pulse also compared Johnson to Sunak on a list of possible attributes. Sunak outperformed Johnson almost across the board (Johnson scored positively on personality, unlike Sunak). Sunak performed particularly positively on attention to detail, understands the problems facing Britain and good in a crisis. He performed badly on “in touch with ordinary people” and polled disappointingly on strength and capability.

The same Deltapoll results that gave Johnson a negative rating on job performance of -39 gave Sunak a positive rating of +21. It appears that a close link with Sunak drags Johnson up: Deltapoll had a particularly interesting question on whether people thought Johnson & Sunak or Starmer & Rachel Reeves would be better for the economy; it was essentially a dead heat, with people choosing Johnson and Sunak by 39-38.

Johnson v his predecessors

A number of pollsters have looked at Johnson’s ratings compared to previously unpopular prime ministers. At the end of January, Ipsos-Mori showed his ratings on satisfaction as PM were now -46, which, they wrote, roughly matched Theresa May’s negative ratings, but were not as bad as John Major’s in August 1994 (-59). They are similar to Tony Blair at his least popular and to Gordon Brown’s in 2008/09.

Competence, decisiveness, strength

YouGov have been running a tracker on perceptions of his competence since he became PM. His numbers began climbing from walking into No 10 and after prorogation and his December 2019 election win climbed into positive territory for the first time – ie more people viewed him as competent than incompetent (43-41).

His competence numbers peaked in the early days of the pandemic (55-31), but headed back into negative territory in June 2020. They have been there ever since, although perceptions of incompetence grew sharply last summer and the last figures, for the end of December, showed the public viewed him as incompetent by 64-22. YouGov’s tracker on “decisivenessshows a similar pattern: his positive numbers climbed sharply in the early days and he sustained positive figures in the early days on the pandemic.

They then fell and sharply deteriorated from the autumn of 2020. As of the end of December they stood as 71-16 negative-positive. And the “strength” tracker is also similar, although perceptions of strength held up longer. As of December they stood at 59-23 weak-strong.

Likeability, trustworthiness

YouGov’s tracker on “likeabilityhas generally had Johnson in positive territory and his numbers were pretty consistent. In December 2021, he hit negative territory for the first time since his early days (51-36 dislikeable-likeable). YouGov’s tracker on “trustworthinesshas always had him in negative territory, but in December this reached 69-15.

What can we conclude from all this?

First, that Johnson is still viable with the public if he is constantly compared to Starmer as the alternative. Starmer has a lead, but Johnson’s negatives aren’t as serious when a choice between the two is forced.

Second, that a close association to Sunak will drag him up by essentially having Sunak fill in his gaps. Against the backdrop of a weak economy, forcing a choice between Johnson and Sunak and Starmer and Reeves looks fruitful.

However, it’s hard to know whether the benefits of such an approach could last. Not only would this effectively launch Starmer and Reeves amongst many voters – who might be reassured at what they see (they’re clearly getting their act together and articulating increasingly sensible positions) – but it might also further raise Sunak’s profile and make people (particularly Conservatives) ask whether it might be better if the Chancellor was the one in No 10.

Two other conclusions come to mind. Third, that, as a PM about to enter a set of serious crises (Russia, most obviously), Johnson has the ability to boost his numbers on competence, decisiveness and strength.

Fourth, if there’s one thing the PM is good at, it’s making people like him; this is his superpower.

In summary, while it’s difficult to say he’s not finished with the public, and while there is at least one big event that could just end it all overnight, there is at least a pathway for his near-term survival.

Mark Brolin: Ignore Johnson’s moralistic detractors. Many voters may end up thinking that we’re lucky to have him.

9 Feb

Mark Brolin is a political analyst, economist and author. His most recent book is titled Healing Broken Democracies.

The anti-Boris Johnson forces, both inside and outside his own party, have trumpeted the “clown-and-a-liar” message ever since the day he entered politics.

Yet he won both Brexit and the 2019 general election – to no small degree because numerous voters know that Johnson is no more evasive than most other politicians, just more attacked when it happens.

In fact, part of his voter appeal is that he sometimes calls a spade a spade. Such as over the EU. And wokery. Unless brought down during the following weeks, Johnson is likely to emerge from partygate as underestimated as almost always.

Most Labour commentators are totally relaxed about Keir Starmer having a beer with his colleagues while up in arms about the Prime Minister having the same thing. Still, an opposition expressing tribal outrage surprises no one. Partygate developed into a major drama only after two aggrieved Conservative subtribes, Remainers and Covid libertarians, decided to exact revenge by siding with Labour’s Johnson bashers.

A key message highlighted by all Johnson’s detractors, such as Covid libertarian Fraser Nelson, is that the Prime Minister is irreparably damaged. This is a classic tactic when trying to topple a leader. Simply because the prophecy turns self-fulfilling if it influences key backers to redraw support. Yet, for three reasons, the damage to Johnson is arguably far from irreversible.

First, he is strong where it counts. In fact, he is one of remarkably few key politicians in sync with the voter majority over both Brexit and lockdown. Conservatives not in sync with Johnson over these issues remain vocal but still represent minority opinion only. It speaks volumes that the Prime Minister’s enemies have had to dig out their inner Cromwell (puritan) to find common ground surrounding an obvious Johnson weak spot.

Following all personal scandals throughout Johnson’s career, it is hard to believe anyone voting for him in 2019 is too surprised about some garden beer or birthday cake rule stretching. Meaning that, despite today’s proactively inflamed moralism, many will eventually write off partygate as “Boris being Boris”.

Not a chance, you say? Well, remember when most commentators lined up to claim “Boris the lying clown” would never pull off Brexit. Yet he did. Why? Partly because voters could tell that singling out Johnson and then going on and on about his missteps, as if he is the only one in Westminster bending the truth when cornered, reeks not only from double standards, but from an anti-coalition ganging up to cut down a feared political rival through bullying.

When the dust has settled many voters are likely to deduce, regardless of current opinion polls, that the UK has in many ways been lucky to have been led by outside-the-box Johnson during the outside-the-box Brexit and Coronavirus years. Since hard to see how a “system clone” Prime Minister would have done a better job. Would, for example, anyone more strongly steeped in the establishment ways have allowed Kate Bingham to run her highly successful task force largely outside the Whitehall structure?

Second, the flipside of moralistic battles is that these easily transgress into silliness. Take Daniel Finkelstein, normally one of the most thoughtful Remainers. He now argues that no heed should be paid to the proportionality argument. Downing Street rule breaking has, as he sees it, severely violated the bond of trust between politicians and voters. If Johnson stays, he continues, it weakens the integrity of nothing less than democracy itself.

Yet it is hard to square Finkelstein’s outrage and sudden championing of the voter bond with his always relaxed attitude towards the massive EU democratic deficit, the EU consistent rule-stretching and the lack of voter insight in Brussels. Also, UK democracy never has been at risk due to Johnson’s Downing Street birthday cake or thank-you-drinks, despite the exceptional circumstances and legal grey area involved.

Democracy is only at risk if a) voters are not allowed to know about doubtful activities and b) voters are not themselves offered an opportunity to pass judgement. Nobody can claim voters have not been made aware of partygate. In fact, Putin is probably still laughing about how a few beers and an HR-investigation has brought the UK government to its knees.

Third, Johnson’s outsider credentials have been boosted by all the PM-bashing. Eton you say? Yes, obviously. But he is still an outsider in a much more politically important sense. Since not thinking and acting in the way of Westminster officialdom. Incidentally this is why he irritates, to bits, so many Westminster insiders. Does anyone really think that Starmer would have faced a similarly moralistic onslaught had he had a beer or a slice of cake in Downing Street during a lockdown? Precisely.

Tribal groupthink is again in play when Johnson is slapped and slapped in the face until he is forced to promise a Downing Street shake up. Unsurprisingly, many staffers immediately start looking elsewhere for opportunities. Whereupon the anti-Johnson forces are publicly gloating: “See, what did we tell you, everyone is leaving”.

Johnson-bashers do not seem to get that many voters can sense such partisan scheming from a mile away. Also undecided voters might very well deduce that if the establishment wants Johnson gone so badly he must be doing something right. This is incidentally one of the best points rarely made in the emotional debate surrounding his future. Since the prime reason democracy must always be upheld is that only the people can be relied upon to offer push back against the paternalist tendencies often developing within an administration class.

Among Johnson’s rivals for the top job, is anyone really better suited, currently, to offer such pushback? The administration class does not seem to think so. It does however seem to love to hate the Downing Street “drinking culture”. Perhaps while seemingly so swimmingly verifying an always much favoured self-image among paternalists: “refined philosopher Kings” versus “vulgar people’s tribunes”.

Nonetheless, even though premature to talk about Johnson as a necessarily spent force, the key reason not to oust him over partygate is much bigger than both Johnson and the Conservative Party. Just think about the precedent it would set if the wording of an unelected civil servant, Sue Gray, is allowed to play a key role in deciding the political fate of a British Prime Minister – following an attempt by that Prime Minister to relax for a few minutes after a number of frantic months.

Political robots will then turn into a permanent feature at Downing Street. Why? Since every Prime Minister will be terrified to put a foot wrong. Well aware that any day the leading civil service “HR-inquisitor” might be tasked to scrutinise, given only yet another bandwagon witch-hunt, if Downing Street has fully followed a “protocol” largely determined by the inquisitors themselves. “What did you see? Alcohol! So you feel it was a ‘party’ rather than a ‘work meet’? Tell me and you might save your own skin.”

Given how moralism as a political weapon has crept back into society – and through mission creep transformed HR-departments from non-entities into rightfully feared internal affairs units – it was probably always only a question of time until this weapon was to be used against one of the last influential anti-moralists still standing. Johnson.

Nonetheless, whatever we personally think of him and partygate, democracy weakens big time if HR-inquisitors can be used to deny voters the chance to pass balanced judgement on the pros and cons of an elected Prime Minister.

Duffield and Labour’s internal tensions over trans rights. Will Starmer intervene?

7 Feb

Over the last week, readers of ConservativeHome may have noticed that an internal dispute within the Labour Party has reached a critical point. Tensions have been brewing between members of the party and Rosie Duffield, the MP for Canterbury, over the abuse she has received for making comments on transgender issues, and the party’s apparent reluctance to defend her.

Duffield, who was elected in 2017 and Labour’s only such representative in Kent, has been one of the most active MPs in voicing concern around the protection of women’s spaces. She believes, in short, that anyone born male should not be allowed into domestic violence refuges and prisons allocated for women, and is against people being able to self-identify as trans to use those spaces. Her view is characterised as “gender critical”.

For expressing this position, as well as liking a tweet saying that women were people with cervixes, Duffield has attracted both fans and opponents, but the latter are causing her considerable alarm. Last year she did not attend the Labour Party Conference, due to concerns about safety after finding herself the subject of intense criticism.

Duffield has since said that she will be considering her future in the party – blaming “obsessive harassment”. She believes she is being targeted in multiple ways for her views; for instance, a blog recently accused her of living in Wrexham (aka not her own constituency) with her partner, in what she called “personal, libellous, nasty and fictional crap”.

Tweeting about the ongoing dispute, Duffield said that “Neither the Labour party or either the former or current Leader or the Whips’ Office have done anything at all to stop it, to offer me any support, help or legal assistance. I am financially unable to pursue a libel action”. She has subsequently been in talks with senior officials about her position, and last week, there was even speculation over whether she will defect.

What is one to make of this debacle? Keir Starmer, and senior officials, have repeatedly been accused of failing to protect Duffield. Will this change any time soon?

One imagines not, for a number of reasons. First is that Labour doesn’t seem to have a clear position on this subject. That much was obvious at the party’s conference last year, where Starmer seemed completely taken offguard when Andrew Marr grilled him on whether only women have a cervix. Questions around the cervix became a common theme at the conference, exposing that the party has huge internal disagreements over the matter.

When Starmer did work out his reply to Marr, he chose to side with activists than Duffield, saying that it was “not right” to say that only women have a cervix. Whether this makes him popular with most members of the public, one isn’t so sure. In the past, he has backed what looks fashionable, according to social media activists, only for voters to tell him otherwise (see: the second referendum).

Perhaps, however, Starmer has simply concluded that with the Tory Party in such disarray, he can continue with constructive ambiguity on women’s spaces. After all, why put out a clear statement, either way, on whether Duffield is right or wrong, when voters are more interested in Boris Johnson’s party antics. Duffield’s misfortune here is timing, given the other distractions going on. But as soon as Conservatives get their act together, Starmer will be under pressure here, and may yet again find himself on a losing path.

Richard Holden: With Labour as the alternative, Conservatives cannot afford any more divisions

18 Jan

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

West Shield’s Farm, Satley, Co. Durham

There are fewer better reality checks than meeting a handful of County Durham farmers, on site, as the light fades and the temperature drops, in the bleak mid-winter. They had got in touch with me about small gangs of people trespassing on their land with dogs and guns, causing repeated criminal damage and leaving them in fear for their families, livestock and their own safety if confronted.

These aren’t the poachers you might find in a by-gone episode of The Archers or Jake from Withnail and I – with a brace of pheasant in his jacket and an eel down his trousers. They’re just thugs who often leave what they shoot in their late-night “sport” and cause lots of damage to farmland and property as they do it. My local farmers have come together in the worst hit areas to fight back, sharing descriptions and number plates caught on cameras with each other and the police.

Any farming community has long memories and lots of small, mostly friendly, local rivalries. Sometimes these are more serious with little schisms and long-running, low-level animosity between, and even within, farming families. But usually, like with this mutual interest to get these local thugs off their patches, they come together in mutual benefit, for their shared interest when they need to and for the benefit of all.

Seeing those farmers reminded me of a time before I was an MP, when I was working behind the scenes. In various roles at Conservative HQ and in different government departments there were tough times. The most challenging time I had wasn’t Boris Johnson or Theresa May’s leadership campaigns, or during the 2015/6 Lords V Commons (unprecedented war) on Universal Credit, or ISIS in Iraq/Syria when I was at the MoD, or DfE battles with The Treasury over funding. The toughest time I had working in politics was at the end of May’s time in No 10 when I was at the Department for Transport.

There were events – drones at Gatwick at Christmas – that caused chaos. This happened at the same time as the Department was facing relentless attacks, trying to undermine our negotiating position with the EU and our ability to withstand a no-deal Brexit, which anyone interested in delivering the best deal with the EU needed to keep on the cards. The cabinet minister I worked for at the time eventually became the only Brexiteer left in cabinet. Others were picked off or left and we were very vulnerable to attacks, mostly motivated by other parts of government and the Conservative Party at the time, egged on by the media and the Opposition, who basically said that Brexit would never work and that they didn’t want it in the first place.

It was horrible. It was nasty, internecine warfare played out daily in the press. It was a political civil war in the governing party and in the country. It could have ended in a Corbyn-led Labour government and at times it was a bloody close-run thing that it didn’t.

Out of that chaos, eventually, Johnson emerged. He faced down the Brexit deniers and eventually forced a General Election. That delivered the first big majority in over three decades and allowed him to deliver on the express mandate of the British people to “Get Brexit Done” – whatever side they’d been on in 2016. The world then got side-swiped with a pandemic. Initially, we didn’t know much about it except that there were bodies being piled in football stadiums in Italy and elsewhere. Even now it is evolving. The calls that our Prime Minister and senior members of the cabinet have made and make on this are massive and have had to be done with far less idea about the outcome than any Brexit negotiation.

But unlike Brexit, the decisions being taken, at pace, have also been potentially matter of life and death for people. They’re also about the survival of many jobs, businesses and education across the country. And we have the same armchair generals thinking their solution is the right one as we did during Brexit. I’m as much a freedom loving Conservative as the next. I joined the party well over 20 years ago when William Hague was our leader – even first term Blair/Brown was too much for that Northern teenager then who felt that London-centric Labour had nothing to offer and did not understand the towns and villages he was growing up in. I don’t have all the answers to what we should do now and I trust that my colleagues in government come from the issue from same starting point as me in their decision making about the future.

Just before Christmas, our party looked like it might eat itself up over the response to Covid-19 – and we’ve got further big decisions before my next column. The damage we do ourselves if we constantly second guess everything ministers do is deep, not just to ourselves but to public confidence. Starmer, Streeting and Co have already proved their instincts are not ours. They wanted to keep lockdown back in July when it wasn’t needed. They would have kept us in the European Medicines Agency for ideological reasons. They wanted more restrictions over Christmas. And they are licking their lips at the prospect of facing a divided party.

Sue Gray’s investigation, which we await the results of will be the short-term determinant of what comes next for our party’s leadership. Many colleagues in Parliament and Conservative supporters in North West Durham have reflected to me that it will determine their view in coming days. But wherever it goes and whatever its consequences, it needs to be a moment where we draw a line under the questions being faced by the Government – one way or the other.

Like my North West Durham farmers facing the anti-social behaviour of the new breed of poachers, we Conservatives need to come together as we face our own anti-Conservative vote poachers in the opposition. Labour would love to see our freedom curtailed permanently for ideological reasons. In government we Conservatives have had to for short-term practical reasons. We are not the same and need to show the public we’re ready to move towards an endemic, rather than pandemic health response.

We have a common enemy as a nation in Covid. As Conservatives we have a common opposition in those whose instincts are not ours on how to deal with it in Labour. Labour would pursue a different path for ideological reasons – they’ve pushed for a different response throughout. I know that Conservatives in government want the same thing as backbenchers and the people who voted for me: freedom returned, Brexit delivered, levelling up in action, crime fought and borders secure, long-term fiscal stability with sound money and fairer, lower taxes, where work is always rewarded and our public services sustainably funded. Let’s allow Sue Gray get on with her job then get on with ours.

Lisa Townsend: It’s time for Conservatives to address the party’s women problem

11 Jan

Lisa Townsend is the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey.

I’m not a fan of ‘women’s issues’. For a start, we make up 51 per cent of the electorate, so if we’re going to discuss sex-based minority policies then we should really be starting with men. Current tactics however, are not working for women.

We know that, historically, women were more likely to vote Conservative. The oft-quoted Fawcett Society claim that without women’s suffrage, the UK would have seen an almost continuous Labour government since the Second World War, should serve as a reminder to us all how important women are in determining who gets to hold the keys to 10 Downing Street.

But right now, the party has a woman problem – a young woman problem, to be more specific. It’s been steadily growing since 2015 and according to recent polling, it’s getting worse. So bad in fact, that without urgent action to regain the trust and confidence of women we will be handing victory to Labour at the next general election. Keir Starmer will be hoping for a 1997-style swing in female voters and the way things are going, he may well get his wish.

Despite our electoral success, in 2015 and 2017, women under 35 were more likely to vote Labour. This was even more stark in 2019 when 47 per cent of men voted Conservative compared to only 42 per cent of women. Older women remain more likely than their male peers to vote Conservative, but we all know what happens if we rely on an ageing cohort for our electoral success.

In 2017, despite a female prime minister and a supposed end to the macho culture at No 10, it was women who found themselves persuaded by Jeremy Corbyn’s promises for a fairer society. More pay, better housing and safer communities. None of these are ‘women’s issues’ but Labour understood that women hold huge electoral power in their pencil-wielding hands, and they made a point of speaking directly to women, in a way that we did not.

The Conservative Party can no longer rely on women to get us over the line, and we shouldn’t be surprised. Women are more likely to be floating voters, less loyal to a party and an ideology, and more influenced by trust – or the lack of – in a leader. It may be the one example where past habits are no longer the predictor of future behaviour. We must try harder to win that trust back, and this will involve going back to basics – at least in terms of our understanding of women.

I’m not a fan of the ‘women and equalities’ brief, but I am pleased it is headed by someone who knows what a woman is. Liz Truss is a rare and brave Cabinet member for questioning Stonewall, publicly and forcefully, paving the way for politicians like me to speak out against a damaging form of trans ideology that places the feelings of men above the safety of women and children.

I don’t believe this is an exclusively women’s issue (it affects us all when gender and sex are conflated), but I do believe that if we are to win and retain women as voters we have to be clear that we know what a woman is. Today, many women who have previously voted Labour, Lib Dem or Green tell me they feel politically homeless. And the one belief those parties have in common: that anyone who calls themselves a woman must be treated as such – no questions asked. Where does that leave those of us who believe that being a woman is more than a ‘feeling’?

It is not too late to win back those who thought Corbyn was the answer or who believe Starmer would be better than Boris Johnson. We don’t need a pink bus or a manifesto for women, we just need to be clear that this Conservative government understands their concerns and their fears.

It was hugely encouraging to see last week’s additions to the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill, including longer sentences for sexual offenders, more time to report domestic abuse and a new ‘breastfeeding voyeurism’ offence. I make the assumption here that there are no men who wouldn’t want to see their mother, wife or daughter given these extra protections, or wouldn’t actively push for these measures. Being the party of law and order appeals to men and women equally.

It was a Conservative government that gave women the vote on the same terms as men, the Conservative Party which has given the UK the only female prime ministers the country has known and now we is the only party which seems to know what a woman actually is. We must not miss the chance to show women all over the UK that their vote and their safety is and always will be safe with us.

Daniel Hannan: Don’t write off Johnson just yet

22 Dec

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Here is a thought that, in the current climate, might seem almost recklessly counter-intuitive. Boris Johnson is doing a good job – better, in the circumstances, than his rivals would be doing. I don’t just mean that he is less bad than Keir Starmer or Jeremy Corbyn or Theresa May. I mean that he is playing an almost impossible hand as well as could realistically be hoped.

I advance that proposition as a fiscal conservative and a lockdown sceptic. ConHome readers will be familiar with my frequent screeds against this government’s prodigality and illiberalism. But it is not enough to argue that the PM is spending too much or that the lockdowns have been too harsh. You have to show me someone who, given the present national mood, would be doing better.

Let’s deal, in order, with the three main charges against Johnson: that his administration is at best careless and at worst sleazy; that he was too ready to close the country down; and that, more generally, he has been absorbed by the Blob that he was supposed to extirpate.

Is Johnson really being undone by cheese and wine? No. What newspapers call “sleaze” is almost always a symptom rather than a cause of a government’s unpopularity. Just as the original “Tory sleaze” scandals in 1993 reflected rage over the ERM fiasco, and just as the 2009 MPs’ expenses revelations followed the financial crisis, so the current furores about parliamentary standards and illicit gatherings in Downing Street and flat redecorations are a chiefly a sign that the benefit of the doubt has been lost.

Six months ago, Johnson could painlessly have replaced the parliamentary standards commissioner on grounds that she seemed to have a penchant for going after Eurosceptics and that, in any case, the processes themselves were flawed.

Likewise, he could have advanced a perfectly credible defence of the (alleged) get-togethers in Downing Street. He might have pointed out, for example, that a glass of wine after a day in a shared office is hardly a party. He could have brandished the image of himself conducting a quiz at his computer as clear evidence that he was following the rules (how bizarre, and yet how telling, that it should be seen as somehow dodgy). He could have argued that, if sleaze means using public office for private gain, then using private money to do up a state-owned flat is ezaels – the precise opposite of sleaze.

If this were really about alleged corruption, the PM would have little to worry about. Voters sense that he is the least venal of men. His manner, his car, his suits – all tell the same story, namely that this is a bloke with no interest in owning valuable things. Yes, voters might see him as shambolic, light on detail, reluctant to moralise. But these attributes were priced in before the 2019 election.

In his short book on Winston Churchill, Johnson lists that great man’s various cock-ups – Gallipoli, the Gold Standard, backing Edward VIII during the abdication crisis – and notes that none of them ruled him out of contention. Why? Because, however chaotic or over-exuberant he could appear, no one ever accused him of lining his pockets. As for the subject, so for his biographer.

If not sleaze, then, what? The obvious answer, for many, is the lockdown. A man who used to write wonderful Telegraph columns about liberty, and whose editorial line at The Spectator was solidly anti-nanny state, has confined us in our homes, closed businesses and seen a massive commensurate increase in spending.

All true, alas. But – and I write as someone who spoke and voted against Plan B in Parliament last week – who would have done better? Even with the Plan B restrictions, Britain is more open than almost any other country. Why? Because Johnson ignored the doom-mongers and unbolted on July 19.

It is worth recalling how much criticism he got at the time. It was “dangerous” and “unethical” according to 122 scientists who signed an anti-Johnson letter in The Lancet, “reckless” according to Starmer, who feebly tried to get #JohnsonVariant trending. Yet infections, hospitalisations and fatalities fell – to the almost literal disbelief of commentators who, for a while, reported the opposite.

Nor was it just commentators who expected the worst. Modellers at Warwick University forecast at least 1,000 deaths a day (in the event, the highest daily toll was 188). SAGE told us that daily hospital admissions would be between 2,000 and 7,000 (the highest daily total was 1,086). Neil Ferguson predicted 100,000 infections a day (they peaked at 56,688).

Now tell me, my fellow lockdown-sceptics, how many other politicians would have resisted that pressure? How many would have done the same on Monday, in the face of an almost hysterical media campaign for a new lockdown?

Again and again, Johnson emerges as a level-headed optimist. Those leaked Cummings WhatsApp messages, intended to put him in a bad light, in fact show him doing precisely what he should be doing, namely taking a stand for liberty and demanding overwhelming evidence before he shifts his ground.

What, though, of the third complaint, the one that I suspect most animates ConHome readers, namely that Johnson has squandered an 80-seat majority and that, all in all, we might as well have had Starmer?

Oh, come off it. Would Starmer have delivered Brexit? Would he have signed free trade agreements with 70 countries? Would he be privatising Channel 4 and appointing a non-socialist to run the BBC? Would he keep our statues standing or stiffen criminal sentences?

Would he be legislating to stop travellers trespassing on private land? Or to return failed asylum seekers without endless vexatious appeals? Would he have opted out of the EU’s vaccine procurement programme? Would he be creating freeports? Would he beef up our defences or pursue AUKUS – a deal he has actually condemned as warmongering?

Let’s put the question another way. Who is enjoying the PM’s discomfort? Labour and the Lib Dems, obviously. But also the European Commission, Emmanuel Macron, Rejoiners, woke academics – everyone, in short, who wants to see Brexit Britain fail.

As a free-market conservative, I am in despair about a lot things right now. The debt level, the retreat into protectionism, the demand for the smack of firm government. But these things are consequences of the pandemic. If you want to blame someone, blame whoever caused the original Wuhan outbreak. The idea that Johnson, of all people, is getting an authoritarian kick out of our misery is too silly for words. We are pretty much the freest country in Europe. Merry Christmas!

The two variables that will predict the extent of the NHS winter crisis. And what we can do about them.

16 Dec

Over the last few weeks, and in the months preceding, there’s been a huge amount of media coverage about the NHS’s “looming winter crisis”. “The NHS staffing crisis is killing people – and this winter it will be even worse”, reads one paper, and you can expect fears to increase as we head towards January, when demand for health services normally peaks.

Clearly there are reasons to be worried about what lies ahead, due to multiple pressures on the NHS, which has been put on its level of emergency preparedness due to the Omicron variant. There’s the strain caused by the “twindemic” of flu and Coronavirus, both of which flourish in winter; the fact that millions of non-Covid procedures, including operations, have been scrapped to ensure that GPs and otherwise can focus on urgent needs and vaccinations; and there are staff shortages too. It’s estimated that the NHS has a shortfall of up to 100,000 employees in total, with vacancies for medical practitioners rising 15 per cent in the last year and seven per cent for nurses. 

Are we about to head into one of the worst crises on record? When I ask Dr Raghib Ali, Senior Clinical Research Associate at the University of Cambridge and a consultant at Oxford University Hospitals, where we are on a timeline of events, he replies “If you mean [by a crisis] ‘will the NHS not be able to deliver all services, as was the case in both the first and second waves, then that is likely – in fact, it’s already happening to an extent because some elective services are being cancelled in some places.” He explains that “the NHS is under a lot of pressure now because of non-Covid… we’re much, much busier than we were certainly in the first wave and, to an extent, even the second wave.”

Ali believes that there are a number of variables that will influence what January looks like. One is how big the backlog is of a) the people who avoid coming into hospital around Christmas and b) those currently staying away, in their own “voluntary lockdown”.

The crucial factor, though, is how effective vaccines are against hospitalisations for the Omicron variant. In short, the less effective, the more hospital beds will start to fill up. Ali says that we should have the hospitalisation data in around one to two weeks, which will mean SAGE – and the Government – is far more able to predict what kind of winter the NHS is in for, and whether it should take preventative measures.

Should the worst outcome prove true (that hospitalisations increase rapidly as a result of Omicron), expect Keir Starmer to use this to argue that the Government did “too little, too late”, even though he knows Boris Johnson would have an extremely challenging time trying to get any more restrictions through (judging by Tuesday’s vote). Were the Labour leader to be granted a vote on the measures, which he’d probably vote through, he could still take the view that they were introduced too late or not enough, as a means to knock the PM.

When I ask Liam Fox, also a doctor, about where we are in the “crisis” timeline, he says we have a chronic problem of under capacity. “I think the question we have to ask is why is it that the NHS seems at almost all times of the year now to be in what we used to call a winter crisis, and what does this tell us about the capacity of the system and the way it’s being run?” 

Fox cites two major factors that are destabilising the system. One is that “the NHS runs at a bed occupancy rate that is too high” which “leaves it lacking resilience” if demand changes suddenly (e.g. Covid patients increasing).

The other is medical practitioners’ “lack of ability to discharge patients who don’t need to be in hospitals” partly due to the closures of community hospitals and respite care – particularly in the 90s. He says that “we’ve been obsessed with increasing high-tech medicine, without considering convalescence as a concept”, which is – in turn – leading to imbalances in healthcare.

Similarly, Ali believes that part of dealing with NHS pressures means working out how to physically discharge patients (who have been medically discharged), who don’t have support afterwards. He believes that key to solving this is better funding for social care; and that this would be economically wise, too, as the cost of hospital beds being taken up by medically discharged people is probably more than the cost of paying social care workers more (who can look after them).

The Government has made a start on tackling this area. Hotels have been transformed into temporary care facilities, for one, and workers from Spain and Greece have been flown in to take care of patients. It seems ministers are well aware of some of the main ways to relieve the strain on the NHS, but they will come under pressure to create reforms for the long-term.

In conclusion, it’s impossible to predict whether the NHS was justified to move into its highest level of emergency preparedness, mainly due to the unknowns about the Omicron variant, which – in the best case scenario – could be highly transmissible, but less severe than others. There’s also the booster jab programme, whose success could radically change the situation. But the Government does know what structural remedies can help it avoid, as one paper put it, “the worst winter.”