James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.
Are prospective leadership candidates attractive to working-class provincial voters? This is a crucial question: the modern base of the Party lies in the English Midlands and North. The next leader must demonstrate they can carry most of those Boris Johnson brought over. We need a provincial candidate.
Answering this big question means considering how and why he brought working-class voters over in the first place. Five things stand out.
Leadership. Boris Johnson surged after prorogation; this proved he could lead. Working-class frustration and exasperation built in the latter days of Theresa May’s leadership as progress on Brexit stalled. It was reasonably common to hear people say we needed someone like Trump at that time “who would at least get stuff done”. These voters were desperate for someone to show some steel. Boris Johnson’s legal row – regardless of its merits – showed he’d do whatever it took to honour the referendum result. In those early days, he was seen as a strong leader who delivered. The landslide win followed.
Change. Jeremy Corbyn over-performed in 2017 because he was viewed as a radical “change” candidate. For many (and not a few!) this was all that mattered. At this point, people hadn’t beamed in on the rather frightening stuff he’d said and done in the past, which ultimately destroyed his 2019 campaign. The Conservatives underestimated this change sentiment and came close to losing power totally. After prorogation, Johnson owned change because he showed he was a different sort of politician. While he was always unusual, it was his ability to deliver that really marked him out as unusual; this perfectly met the spirit of the time.
Charisma. There’s no doubt Boris Johnson’s appeal to working-class voters was helped by his unique charisma – and indeed his enormous name recognition. True, his charisma has worn off in time (and his character now irritates), but there was a time his presence on the campaign trail was electrifying. This all allowed him to land messages – in some cases complex ones – other politicians couldn’t pull off.
Issues. Unfashionable as it is to assert in politics, issues count. Boris Johnson was completely in tune with working-class voters on Brexit. But there were other issues where he was completely aligned: more money for the NHS; recruiting more police; and immigration reform. Whether these priorities reflected his own beliefs or the results of polls and focus groups is irrelevant. On the big calls, he was aligned with provincial England.
Levelling-up. Working-class voters didn’t hear the levelling-up message for a long time and even now the agenda has passed many by. Furthermore, there’s scepticism it’ll ever work. But it’s really important: it has given provincial working-class voters a sense the Party cares about them somehow. Until very recently, working-class voters talked exclusively about the Conservatives as a party for the posh, Southern rich. That still comes out but at least now there is a sense from many the Conservatives are trying to improve their lives. While the levelling-up programme hasn’t been implemented (or communicated) perfectly, Boris Johnson has been its primary political sponsor.
It’s not 2019 anymore; the context has changed and Boris Johnson can’t mobilise provincial working-class voters like he once could. He is too damaged and so is the Party. As such, it’s not credible simply to ask whether prospective leadership candidates could match his 2019 efforts. However, any candidate with ambitions to retain working-class voters will need to offer something nearly as attractive, even if they do it in a different way. So, are there any candidates for whom this is viable?
At this point in time, you’d have to say that nobody offers a similar package. Rishi Sunak is unquestionably in the strongest position. While he has been damaged by recent stories, he is seen to have played a leadership role in the pandemic and he naturally embodies a sense of change. However, he has never appeared to be particularly keen on the levelling-up agenda (as defined by No 10), and has yet to declare his hand on many issues close to working-class voters’ hearts. It still feels like he’d take the Party back to the Cameron era.
We will no doubt start to see candidates from outside the Cabinet declaring their hand in the coming days. Those within the Cabinet will be doing so more subtly: giving great media performances “in defence” of the PM which are in reality designed to show off their political skills. We should watch them all closely, with provincial voters in mind. Most of them will stay within the classic Tory comfort zone, droning on about “One Nation”. We should be keeping a close eye on those that try to do something a bit different and who try to articulate an authentic provincial approach. If they can’t attract working-class voters, they should be discounted
Author: James Frayne