Ten days of change
Following the Owen Paterson fiasco, Labour has leapt forward in the polls. Eddie Ford argues that this creates problems for the standard left narrative of a useless Keir Starmer
As the Owen Paterson fiasco has reminded us, Tory sleaze is hardly a new phenomenon. Though it cannot be denied that with this particular government - and prime minister - we have had an embarrassment of riches to complain about. Whether it be the lavish refurbishment of Boris Johnson’s Downing Street flat, furthering the business interests of an ex-lover against all the rules, a mysterious free holiday to a luxury villa in Spain owned by a Tory peer linked to a tax evasion case, or ‘cash for peerages’.
Most seriously of all, perhaps, there has been a near endless series of allegations about Tory MPs and ministers helping associates and chums gain lucrative Covid contracts, supplying PPE and other services. Thus we had the former health secretary, Matt Hancock, being found to have acted “unlawfully”, when his department failed to reveal the details of various contracts worth about £15 billion it had signed off during the pandemic - including a company which had previously supplied only confectionery products (reminiscent of Chris Grayling’s £89 million contract with a ferry company that … had no ferries). Now we have the story that a Conservative Party donor, David Meller - who supported Michael Gove’s Tory leadership bid - won £164 million in Covid contracts after Gove referred his firm to a “VIP lane” that awarded almost £5 billion to companies with strong political and personal connections to leading figures within the government. Meller has donated nearly £60,000 to the Tory Party since 2009, whilst 47 companies have benefited handsomely from the government’s fast-track lane for contracts. The chumocracy is alive and well.
Having said all that, what is significant about these stories and scandals is not the sleaze as such - even if it can be quite entertaining - but the political impact it appears to have had. Of course, there is always the danger that you can exaggerate what are actually passing trends and stories. But it is unsurprising that a whole number of different polls have registered a distinct Owen Paterson effect. In the words of The Sun, the latest poll from Savanta ComRes published on November 12 has “poleaxed” Boris Johnson with a three-point Tory lead collapsing into a six-point deficit. This is surely thanks to the efforts of Mr Paterson - not to mention the booming-voiced Sir Geoffrey Cox, the MP for Torridge and West Devon and tireless defender of tax havens everywhere, who has earned nearly £6 million from his ‘second job’ as a high-flying barrister.
Anyhow, the survey has the Tories on 34% and Labour getting 40%. The Savanta poll also showed that 66% of voters believe Johnson should apologise for his handling of the Paterson scandal, including 60% of Tory voters questioned. Meanwhile, 62% of respondents said Sir Geoffrey Cox should resign, while 50% thought that MPs should be banned from taking second jobs.
There have been several other polls as well that came out with broadly similar results, though the Savanta ComRes poll is the most dramatic in terms of the Labour lead. A YouGov survey published the day before has Labour and the Tories neck and neck on 35%.1 Elsewhere, the Greens have 5% (up one point), the Liberal Democrats are on 8% - staying still - the Scottish National Party remains on 5% and Reform UK (ex-Brexit Party) has 4% support. (It is a bit surprising that the Greens have only had a 1% increase, given Cop26 and the general consensus that it has been a failure - though opinions vary wildly on how much of a failure.)
Interestingly, maybe even more significantly, when voters were asked who would make the best prime minister, Sir Keir got 29%, two points ahead of the populist Boris Johnson (41% were “not sure” and 3% “refused” to give their view). Also interestingly, two-thirds viewed the Tories as “very sleazy” - a pretty large figure. Watch out, Boris. Other findings worth mentioning are that 57% thought the Johnson government had “badly” handled Brexit, as opposed to 31% who said they had done “well”, and “in hindsight” 48% now believed it had been “wrong” to leave the European Union - rather than the 39% who still think it was the right decision.
Another survey by Redfield and Wilton Strategies released a few days before the YouGov poll put Labour two points ahead of the Tories - with the Lib Dems and Greens remaining unchanged on 10% and 6% respectively, whilst the SNP was down one point at 4%. When those who say they do not know how they would vote in a general election are included, Labour still leads by 2% - which must be good news for Sir Keir.
The Observer chose to interpret these poll findings as “10 days that turned Boris Johnson from election winner to political liability” (November 14). The newspaper went on to comment that “two weeks ago it was difficult to find a single Labour MP who genuinely thought their party was in with a chance of winning the next election”. In fact, “the mood was one of quiet resignation at the prospect of a fifth consecutive defeat” and the media “had also largely written off Keir Starmer”. Rafael Behr, a centre-right commentator for The Guardian, writes that the Johnson leadership has been “in defiance of political gravity” and “avoided impact” (November 17). But “amid the hullabaloo over Tory MPs’ lobbying sidelines can be heard a crunch of gravel, as a prime minister comes down to earth” - yes, “gravity restored”. Boris Johnson, continues Behr, “insults people who think rules matter”. By contrast, Starmer “is doing well by instead asking who speaks for the country” on questions of honour and corruption - him or Johnson?
There is a degree of hyperbole at work here. After all, a swift bounce-back for Johnson would come as no surprise. Nevertheless, the above remarks contain a kernel of truth. More importantly still, the latest polls undermine the standard narrative from those sad souls on the left who have been saying for at least the last six months that the polls prove that Sir Keir is useless and not up to the job because he spends all his time attacking the left - that he does not really want to win the next election, and so on. We find this skewed perspective in the latest issue of Socialist Worker, which complains that “the stench of corruption should be enough to ditch Johnson” - yet “Labour’s timid so-called opposition may still enable Johnson to survive” (November 16).
The obvious reply is that these are strange times indeed. We have had Brexit and Covid-19 and the subsequent economic disruption - followed by the driver crisis, the fuel crisis, living standards crisis, etc. Meaning more circumspection is required about ‘normal’ politics and what you expect an opposition party to be doing at this stage in the electoral cycle. We may not be fully back to ‘politics as usual’, but you could regard the current polls as Sir Keir’s reward for purging the unelectable left.
Naturally, you understand why some on the left scrabble around for such consolations. Keir Starmer is a loser! Jeremy Corbyn was right! But at the end of the day there is only one question about a general election - are you going to vote for a potential government or a fringe party? Put like that, it is either the Tories or Labour. And if you want the Tories out, understandably enough, then it is Labour. It is a pretty simple calculation.