Boris Johnson may be on the ropes, but his opponent Keir Starmer is yet to show that he has a knockout punch
I don’t make a habit of quoting Vladimir Lenin, but one of his remarks popped into my mind as I sat down to write this column: ‘There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.’
As we approach the end of 2020 and look back on all that happened, one might conclude that there are also years when centuries happen.
Think about all we have seen. The arrival and stubborn persistence of a pandemic; an accompanying economic crisis; the overhaul of our daily lives; the eruption of protests on both sides of the Atlantic; the pulling-down of statues; a divisive US presidential election campaign; the massive expansion of the state and the loss of liberty and autonomy; the revival of suburbia and the decline of cities; the shrinking of globalisation and the return of the nation-state.
Future historians will almost certainly describe this year as a watershed moment.
Another person who will not forget 2020 in a hurry is Boris Johnson. We have not even reached the first anniversary of his emphatic victory over Jeremy Corbyn, but already his premiership is on the ropes.
While Johnson and the Conservative Party have spent the past ten months on at least 40 per cent in the polls (a feat that no previous Conservative leader since Margaret Thatcher managed to achieve), there are signs that things might be about to change.
Disillusionment with how Johnson has led the country through the most severe crisis since the Second World War is now palpable on both the left and right of the spectrum. There is a feeling that he might be out of his depth. And there are rumours that the combination of leading a country, becoming the father of a new baby and recovering from coronavirus has been too much.
Even the normally friendly conservative newspapers are publicly voicing their doubts about whether he is up to the job, while these days you do not need to spend long in SW1 to stumble across prominent conservatives expressing their belief that the prime minister ‘will be gone within a year’.
Rishi Sunak is usually mentioned as a possible successor, although we should remember it is easy to be popular when you are giving away money.
Other warning signs are visible below the surface. As I write this column, 52 per cent of British people said they disapproved of the government’s record to date. And remember, this is before the arrival of what looks set to be a long dark winter that will include an extension of the Great Lockdown, a sluggish economy, rising unemployment and little sign of the ‘V-shape’ recovery.
It is not hard to see how Johnson goes down in history as the prime minister who ruined Christmas.
All this is pushing open the door for the Labour Party.
It was once said that oppositions do not win elections because governments lose them, and the problems in Number 10 are pushing open the door for their opponents.
Sir Keir Starmer, former director of public prosecutions, stands somewhere between the Corbynism of the radical left and the Blairism of the centre. Critics say it is not entirely clear what he stands for, which is a fair assessment.
But the leader of the opposition doesn’t need to get bogged down in detail just yet. I know some members of his team well, and they have a solid grasp of what went wrong for Labour under Corbyn’s reign. But make no mistake: to return to power they face the political equivalent of climbing Everest.
For one thing, Scotland is gone. The continued dominance of the SNP leaves Labour even more dependent on England, where the party has not won the popular vote since 2001. This means that by the time of the next election the main opposition party will not have won the vote in England for nearly a quarter of a century, which is rather remarkable and troubling.
Given that Labour already holds the vast majority of middle-class liberal seats in London and the university towns, it needs to win back its ‘Red Wall’ working-class seats, which might explain why Starmer is spending so much time in places like Doncaster and Walsall telling voters Labour will make the case for family values, security and patriotism, all of which were glaringly absent under Corbyn.
To win power, Starmer will not only need to win back this territory but also capture a swathe of other seats that stand well apart from London and university towns. Is this possible? Sure. Is it likely? I’ll leave you to ponder.
In the end, Starmer may find himself pushing for an alternative and easier path to power: one that sees Labour and the SNP join some kind of coalition against the Conservatives.
And what will be the price for that coalition? A second referendum north of the border. While the last decade witnessed an end to Britain’s relationship with the European Union, it is not sensationalist to suggest that the next might bring about the end of the United Kingdom more generally.
Matthew Goodwin is professor of politics and associate fellow at Chatham House