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ANDY MACIVER: It’s the Tory party. If PM stops looking like a winner, it will find one who does

© Tayfun Salci/ZUMA Press Wire/ShutterstockBoris Johnson
Boris Johnson

Andy Maciver is Director of Message Matters and former Head of Communications for the Scottish Conservatives

As the Tories head into their annual conference – a hybrid affair partly in Manchester and partly at the end of a Zoom link – they at last have some competition.

Last week in Brighton, Sir Keir Starmer imposed his Blairite authority on the Labour Party in his most bullish display since becoming party leader.

Tories should be wary of this – a Labour party appealing to the aspirational working classes is a Labour party to be feared. It is a Labour party capable of picking up the bricks from the famous red wall demolished by the Tories in 2019, and cementing it back together.

Sir Keir’s new slogan – Make Brexit Work – is a tidy indicator that he understands his challenge. It is the slogan of an arch-Remainer who understands that battle is lost and it is time to move on.

It is the slogan of a southerner who understands what the north needs to hear to vote Labour.

It is the slogan of a leader smart enough to see where the Tories’ Achilles heel is likely to be in the run-up to the next General Election.

But will it make a difference? And will it be enough? Probably not.

Andy Maciver

Prime Minister Boris Johnson remains a popular, if divisive, figure. Although polling tells us that more Britons now think Brexit is going badly, history tells us that they will back whatever plan Johnson has to remedy it. His head-to-head poll ratings against Sir Keir remain favourable.

Furthermore, despite both men having privileged upbringings, Johnson still appears to exude more of a common touch; more of an instinctive understanding of where the average Briton’s mind is (Sir Keir, unpromoted and inexplicably, called for a female James Bond last week – polls showed the public, including women, to find that unacceptable).

And, of course, the change in Labour’s rulebook forced through by Sir Keir, which effectively prevents another coup, curbs the far-left’s power, but does not curb their mouths or their keyboards.

There is little less repellent to a red wall Tory voter, whom Labour needs to come home at the ballot box in a couple of years, than hearing the man they voted for being called “scum” by Labour’s deputy leader.

Instead, if Johnson is to be defenestrated, it is far more likely to be the result of his own government’s missteps or his own party’s concerns, rather than by the opposition.

The Prime Minister has had a range of troubles throughout his time in office, but none have been as impactful as the triple threat facing him today – Brexit, fuel supply and energy prices.

The first two are, of course, linked, but the same Brexit-related migrant worker problem which has contributed to the haulier shortage, which in turn has led to the petrol and diesel supply problem, may well rear its head over, and over, and over.

The concept of Brexit was never going to affect most people, but the impact will. It’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the landing.

And as we head into winter, Johnson should not underestimate the impact on him of the energy price crisis. He may not be able to have the cause pinned on him (British energy policy has been chaotic for decades), but he can be sure that he will be blamed by people who have to choose between heating or eating this winter.

He will know himself that if he starts to falter, those around him will pounce. This is, after all, the Tory party. If you stop being a winner, they’ll find someone who is.