Five reasons why Boris Johnson’s majority could be in trouble sooner than you think

The prime minister may look secure but before long the pandemic could be his undoing

August 05, 2020
Johnson shows off the 2019 intake—but they won't all keep their seats. Photo:  Leon Neal/PA Archive/PA Images
Johnson shows off the 2019 intake—but they won't all keep their seats. Photo: Leon Neal/PA Archive/PA Images

The measure of Boris Johnson’s 2019 general election victory cannot be overstated. Defending a decade-long programme of austerity, Brexit delays, and general incapacitation, the Conservative Party’s 80-seat win last December defied the political norm.

Commentators labelled the result a transformative moment for UK politics—and an outcome that would almost certainly lock Labour out of office for a generation. However, just eight months on, we could well be seeing a fracturing of Johnson’s 2019 coalition and an opportunity for Labour, and other opposition parties, to make up lost ground. In new polling by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) we found that the Conservatives’ majority could be vulnerable in this parliamentary cycle, across five interrelated areas, which are currently being exacerbated by Covid-19.

The first of the key drivers to the potential erosion of Conservative support this parliamentary term is its handling of the pandemic in terms of health. In our polling, we found that across the UK a majority of respondents (54 per cent) said that their opinion of the government had “worsened” during the crisis—and that only 18 per cent said it had improved. Even among Conservative voters, the plurality response was negative for Johnson’s government—with 32 per cent of respondents indicating that they felt it has performed inadequately. There is also a strong feeling that the government, itself, is to blame for the loss of British lives to the virus—even more so than China, across all voter groups, apart from Conservative voters. Significantly, undecided voters that the Conservatives will need to win back next time are more than twice as likely to blame the British government for the death toll here than the Chinese government.

Secondly, the government is also likely to become vulnerable on matters relating to the economy, and its traditional pitch of competence of this front. For example, our data shows that voters, red and blue, would like to see higher government spending in the aftermath of Covid-19. A plurality of Conservative-voting respondents (44 per cent) indicated their preference for more spending—and, in turn, a more centre-left economic agenda—going forward. This includes wage increases for key workers, such as NHS nurses and care home staff, as well as a broad support for a rise in public sector spending (a position held by 71 per cent of Conservative and 92 per cent of Labour-voting respondents). On personal income, we also detected majority viewpoints for increasing the state minimum wage (at 53 percent and 85 per cent, respectively) and revising the current tax bands—with 57 per cent of Britons, for example, in favour of introducing a 50 per cent rate on individuals earning over £200k.

Moving to the left, economically, is a certainty of Covid, and is likely to have been priced into modelling and policy discussion by those in No 10. However, the third vulnerability for the Conservatives is the fracturing of the tribes that were created out of the 2016 Brexit vote and lasted until last November’s election. This could ultimately be Johnson’s undoing. According to our data, there has, already, been some fracturing of the tribalism that helped Johnson flip key seats in 2019—with Covid-19, and the UK’s response, now a priority for voters, rather than Brexit.

Fourthly, this haemorrhaging of support is clearly at work in the “Red Wall” seats that the Conservatives will depend on for maintaining their majority—and Labour is benefiting. Indeed, our polling shows that almost one quarter of this group currently say they intend to return to Labour, while the Conservatives have kept only one in five of them. However, the biggest group of Red Wall defectors—46 per cent—is made up of voters who do not know who they will vote for or are considering not turning out at all. They could ultimately shift to whichever party can portray itself as a competent and capable of addressing their immediate needs.

The fifth, final vulnerability could hurt the Conservatives if they attempt to replay the 2019 election with a bellicose approach to EU negotiations, especially if this is extended to relations with the rest of the world. A large majority of the electorate, far from nativist, are outward looking, supportive of international co-operation and largely at ease with globalisation. This was shown by two-thirds of respondents identifying the need for more international cooperation, and just 18 per cent saying that globalisation has gone too far. Even data from the “Red Wall” constituencies reveals that 61 per cent of voters here are supportive of more international cooperation, and just 24 per cent think globalisation has gone too far.

All of this appears to suggest that the Conservative brand is going to require serious change if Johnson is to succeed in holding his 2019 coalition. The party’s pitch, of competence and safe custodianship of the economy, is already wilting as a result of the Covid crisis. How it handles the next phase of the virus could well determine its future—as voters shake off their hitherto entrenched views on Brexit and size up the competence of the political opposition.