One of the favourite shorthands when a politician finds themselves in a position similar to Boris Johnson’s is “mounting pressure”. But does the prime minister actually feel that at all?
An Electoral Commission investigation into how the refurbishments of Johnson’s Downing Street flat were paid for is certainly a development the PM would likely have preferred not to see – but Johnson has been steadfast in saying that he paid the costs himself, although it is not clear whether a loan was received initially and then paid back. Downing Street has said all rules were followed.
The Electoral Commission has the power to refer matters to the police, which would prove to be more of a difficult PR situation for the prime minister were it to occur, but we are not there yet, if it happens at all.
Still, why was Johnson so forthright at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) on Wednesday, under a barrage of targeted questions from Labour leader Keir Starmer? The poll numbers for both the Conservatives, and Johnson’s own approval rating, will have helped.
Government ministers have generally stuck to the line during television and radio interviews that the public have little taste for a row about how a flat is decorated – with Labour being clear that this goes beyond that and shows Johnson’s attitude to serving in public office. There is little doubt that people should care about what this latest row means, but that is not being borne out in the numbers yet.
A BMG poll conducted for The Independent puts the Conservatives on 39 per cent to Labour’s 35, extending the Tory lead from two to four points compared to a similar survey in March. Johnson himself was also picked as preferred prime minister over Keir Starmer by a margin of 40 per cent to 24 per cent, compared to 35 to 28 in March.
A number of interviews for the poll were carried out after former Johnson aide Dominic Cummings took to his blog last Friday and attacked Johnson’s character – however, it may be a little while before we see the effect of the events of the last couple of days play out in the polls. That may make things worse for Johnson and his party, but so far, there has been little movement.
Politico’s “poll of polls” currently has the Conservatives sitting on 43 per cent to Labour’s 34 per cent when it comes to national voting intention, with Johnson’s approval rating sitting at 53 per cent positive to 47 per cent negative.
So what will it take for people to turn against Johnson? Seemingly more than this. The prime minister is helped by people’s feelings towards his opposite number in parliament, Starmer. Having had Labour virtually neck-and-neck in the polls in parts of late 2020, the Labour leader’s own approval ratings have dropped in the latest poll for The Independent. From a finding of 29 per cent to 27 per cent positive/negative in March, Starmer has fallen to a 23 per cent/32 per cent positive/negative rating now.
So, a win for the personality politics personified for Johnson? Certainly, when it comes to the very idiosyncratic way the prime minister has built his standing. Having pulled off the very Donald Trump-like trick of appearing to be outside the machinations of Westminster while being firmly embedded in them, making the story one of the “Westminster bubble” is the best thing he can do.
It is not often that a Conservative leader can ride out even parts of the right-wing press hounding them, but Johnson appears content to do so. Anything even approaching an apology over a lack of clarity now will destroy that edifice.
Voters clearly want tangible results on things like the vaccine rollout, which Johnson has delivered. The questions will inevitably keep coming about the flat, but the more Downing Street can confine them to a matter of furnishings, the more it looks like a distraction from the “real world”.