In the end, Boris Johnson’s fall was sudden and dramatic — but running focus groups over the course of his premiership you could see his demise happening in slow motion.
There is no doubt that for the first two years of his premiership Johnson connected with sections of the public normally off-limits to politicians. As someone used to hearing the public express their cynicism about our elected representatives, it was at times astounding to hear voters refer to the prime minister as “our Boris”.
Then things started to shift, irreversibly, last Autumn. While “wallpapergate” never really cut through, the Paterson scandal did, followed in quick succession by the seemingly never-ending series of allegations over Downing Street lockdown parties and increasingly incredible denials. It was Becky from Blackpool who best summed up the mood with “he’s blown it”.
The challenge for the leadership contenders then is to make sure that those voters who fell out with Johnson, don’t fall out of love with the Tories.
None of the candidates yet have the star quality, the celeb-like, one-name status that Boris enjoyed. Most start with a blank slate — and indeed a blank stare if they bumped into a voter. They’re barely recognised outside their own front doors. Until now, voters in focus groups usually only recognise the former chancellor Rishi Sunak, who’s been on his own public opinion roller coaster; Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, who’s seen her stature rise during the war in Ukraine, and Jeremy Hunt, who’s sometimes remembered from his tenure as health secretary.
What pointers then do focus groups offer for helping the leadership candidates make a good first impression with the public?
Firstly, more than anything else, they need to show that when it comes to the cost of living, they get it. Rising prices, the cost of food, fuel and other essentials dwarf all other public concerns. In group after group we hear about people taking on extra jobs, reusing last year’s outgrown school uniform, or cutting back on the family food shop. The public accept that inflation isn’t the government’s fault, most recognise it’s instead some combination of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and maybe Brexit, but they do want to hear a plan for how they’ll be helped to get through the winter.
Of course, the candidates have to win over the Tory base, and that will inevitably involve talking about some issues that aren’t immediate priorities for the public at large — getting elected obviously matters. But the question is one of balance. At a time when people are struggling to keep the lights on and feel they are paying ever higher taxes, a race which focuses purely on red meat for the Tory base risks looking at best self-indulgent and at worst totally out of touch.
Secondly, the next leader needs to give the public a positive vision for how they’ll get the country working again. In a recent focus group in Hitchen, I asked the participants to give one word to describe the state of the UK in 2022, almost every participant said some variation of “shambles”. Passport delays, plane cancellations, rail strikes, hospital waiting lists all leave people feeling like Britain is broken. People again want to know that there’s a plan to make things better, to improve public services, to put more money into people’s pockets, and, dare I say it, show the benefits of Brexit.
Part of that means also talking about Britain’s role in the world and building on the leadership the country has shown in Ukraine. Johnson’s now famous phone calls with President Zelensky may have been motivated in part by self-preservation, but I’ve been struck by how proud British people are that Zelensky singles the UK out for praise and our role in tackling the evil of President Putin. The candidates need to show the public how they’ll build a global leadership role to their benefit, for ever putting to bed the myth that Brexit is synonymous with Little England.
Thirdly, people need to be convinced we won’t see another lockdown party scandal. That’s not because people want our politicians to be saintly, in fact — painful as it may be for some of Twitter commentators to read — a good chunk of voters admire some of Johnsons’s roguish elements. But public anger boils over when those scandals appear to confirm that it’s “one rule for politicians and another rule for the public” — that’s why Barnard Castle, Downing Street parties and tax scandals cut through when so many other scandals didn’t. The public’s innate sense of fairness was outraged, something that came through in all focus groups, everywhere we held them across red and blue walls alike.
Finally, the contenders need to demonstrate that they can keep the best bits of Boris. There’s a danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It’s worth stressing that even as late as June, when voters felt the prime minister had to go — or in their words “let himself down” — many still had respect for him. The public did and continue to give Johnson credit for his handling of the pandemic and getting Brexit done and liked that he wasn’t just an average politician. It was that awareness of how widely he was still admired which fuelled the prime minister’s attempt to cling on — he knew how many had voted for brand Boris, which is why, no doubt in his final hours as prime minister, he was reminding cabinet doubters of his unique public mandate.
The next leader needs to recapture some of that magic formula — channelling the elements of his style that the public liked: a sense that he did talk straight to them, and had zero tolerance for gridlock and bureaucracy.
Popular flagship policies such as commitments on climate and “levelling up” need to stay; there’s no doubt the public would find it “eccentric” in the extreme if they were junked by the next occupant of No 10. The next leader needs to find a way to make continuity and fresh start go hand in hand.
The Tories have an impressive slate of candidates to be the next prime minister, who reflect the diversity of our country better than any contest which has gone before. The challenge now is to build a pitch beyond the 360 Tory MPs and 150,000 or so Tory members, and lay out a plan which addresses the concerns of 70 million people up and down the country. That’s when the real task of rebuilding trust begins.
Luke Tryl is UK Director of More in Common