Winter by-elections are rarely kind to governments. But Boris Johnson’s Conservative party held on to a south London stronghold on a low turnout with a tolerably-reduced majority.
More worrying was that 1,400 voters got out of bed (one presumes) on a bitterly cold day to vote for the relatively anonymous candidate of a rebranded populist Reform party. That’s about as many as the Greens and Liberals could manage between them.
After two years of setting the agenda, the talk now is of Boris losing his grip. But might it be the change in his agenda?
Three recent events stand out.
The first was his decision to put up taxes to stop the state-run health service from buckling under. If this had been seen as an emergency measure, with a robust assurance that public spending (and then taxes) would be tackled as soon as possible, his natural supporters might have been more accepting.
But it looks like they doubt the government’s credibility.
The second was the conjunction of the COP26 climate doom machine landing in Glasgow with a domestic energy crisis (both linked with inept policymaking, albeit for quite different reasons). With hindsight, Boris had the chance to say “higher prices are needed to save the planet … but here’s my plan to use economic growth to protect you”. Instead, there is expensive short-term placation and the assurance that this certainly won’t recur at each stage of the state-led economic transformation.
It looks like they doubt the government’s credibility.
The third is the boats coming from France with illegal migrants. The government said Brexit would make it possible to protect the borders. Now it seems to be negotiating with France’s government (when the French are prepared to talk that is) with the suggestion that EU and UN rules trump any unilateral action.
If so, it’s hard to see an outcome which enhances the government’s credibility.
The situation for the government is far from dire. Its Covid policy, despite wobbles, looks more popular and robust, while the economy is in better shape, than on large chunks of the European mainland. Lord Frost (Boris’s minister for arguing with the EU) has held a firm line in negotiations over the openness of the Northern Irish market and access to UK fishing waters. Boris and his party are level pegging or ahead in opinion polls – a situation which could be worse at this stage in a parliament.
Government is the art of compromise. But is Boris striking bad ones, or just too many? And maybe not just for his base (which ought to be manageable) but for the centre ground too (which probably won’t be).
So no surprise that on the day after the by-election the Times told us of the determination of Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer, to cut taxes before the next election.
He’ll have to provide more substance, to judge by graffiti on south London’s A3 Malden underpass:
“Rishi wants your stuff. Bitcoin is the answer”.
It looks like the problem is credibility.