Boris Johnson has failed his first electoral test. Friday’s result in the Brecon and Radnorshire bye election – a heavy loss of a Conservative seat to the Liberal Democrats, leaving his working majority in Parliament at just one MP – is the first sign of reality re-asserting itself.
The problem is not just the numbers, but that is a serious problem. Now a single disgruntled MP could hold the whole government to ransom by threatening to quit or side with Labour in a confidence vote. There are far more than one disgruntled MPs on the Tory seats in the Commons.
Johnson’s uncompromising purge of government ministers, many of them respected as genuine talents, has left him a rump of smarting egos on his backbench, adding to an already seething and conflicted collection.
The chaos of Theresa May’s final year as prime minister left the whip almost powerless to stop revolts both by Brexiteer ultras and by Remainers.
Brexiteers want to completely erase May’s Brexit deal from existence. Remainers and soft-Brexiteers consider the damage a no-deal exit would cause much worse than the consequences of delay, or compromise, or even a flat rejection of the referendum decision.
And there is another problem for Johnson in the byelection result – what it represents. Tabloids, and the noisier end of the Conservative Brexitsphere, have been full-throated in hailing Johnson’s ascension to Number 10. They have loved his public attitude: a defiant nationalism, endlessly and creatively praising British pluck, ingenuity and opportunity.
Tabloids, and the noisier end of the Conservative Brexitsphere, have been full-throated in hailing Johnson’s ascension to Number 10.
They have loved his public attitude: a defiant nationalism, endlessly and creatively praising British pluck, ingenuity and opportunity.
They have proclaimed a “Boris bounce” – indeed, Johnson’s hardline Brexit policy is winning voters back from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, and by some polls he would comfortably win a general election with a fresh, huge majority.
But newspapers are not voters and polls are just polls. Other numbers had Johnson with the lowest net approval rating of anyone to have entered 10 Downing Street (indeed no new party leader since 1980 has started work so unpopular). His party loves him, many others really don’t. He is what’s known on these isles as a Marmite politician. And he has failed his first concrete electoral test.