As a new father, Boris Johnson already had reasons to lose sleep – and polls conducted over the weekend did not help the situation. With Labor ahead of the Conservatives in sequential polls, one of which shows the biggest lead since 2014, many in British politics are wondering: is this a turning point for Boris Johnson’s government, or just another topic of conversation?
Let’s first look at the problem of the stated Christmas parties in Downing Street and other Whitehall departments last December.… Over the past several months, Labor has gradually reduced the Conservative leadership in the polls. There is no doubt that since this story began, this trend has intensified, and now Labor is in the lead. But the drama is unlikely to have a lasting effect.
Like Dominic Cummings’ visit to Barnard Castle, it can generate a lot of buzz, discussion and debate. But ultimately very few will walk into the voting booth in the next general election in 2024 and say, “I don’t vote for Conservatives anymore because they had a Christmas party in 2020 and then they lied about it.”
Consider the following thought experiment: If the furor over Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle in April 2020 had never happened, would polls be significantly different today? It’s very hard to argue with that, and while the issue of Christmas parties may be more serious than Barnard Castle in the eyes of voters, it doesn’t seem big enough on its own to have long-term implications.
However, the decisive point here is “by itself”.
In terms of the cumulative impact on voting intent, this latest scandal could indeed be significant when combined with Barnard’s Castle, Owen Paterson’s fiasco, Downing Street renovations and subsequent Tory fines, and so on. More voters may come to believe that the government is acting unfairly, that it is not playing by its own rules, and that it is dishonest. It can then become a devastating narrative that will be difficult to get rid of, even if the majority is 80 and (potentially) a few years away from the next general election.
In the short and medium term, the greatest risk for the government may be associated with public attitudes towards the new Covid rules and restrictions introduced.
Control over the distribution of the Omicron variant depends, at least in part, on support from both MPs and the British public. If recent disagreements mean Conservative bench defenders no longer want to support Johnson in his approach and at the same time, many members of the public feel motivated or even encouraged to ignore the rules, especially around Christmas time, then the prime minister is faced with a serious problem.
One canceled Christmas could be considered bad luck, two canceled – and the Prime Minister will know how devastating it can be.
After all, these are very unusual times and no one knows how the polls will go. But Boris Johnson may still have many sleepless nights ahead – and not all because of his newborn.
Joe Twyman is a co-founder of the Deltapoll consulting company.
[see also: Will “Plan B” stop another lockdown?]