Boris is one of us,” the mechanic told me, as we waited for the PM’s arrival on a stump stage at a transport depot in Sunderland during the general election campaign. Really? He’s an old Etonian who reads Greek poetry before bed. “Yes but you could have a pint with him.” But do you trust him, after all his career jiggery-pokery and all the women he has two-timed?
“I wouldn’t mind his love life,” the middle-aged Red Wall mechanic replied, to raucous laughter and affirmative nods from his colleagues.
And there in a nutshell is Labour’s problem over the storm of allegations hurled at No 10’s door over the past two weeks. It’s not that Boris Johnson’s personal conduct in it all is fine. It isn’t. The words he speaks in anger when he loses an argument, such as over the second lockdown, are insulting and unbecoming of his office. Serious questions are also rightly being asked over the bill for the £58,000 redecoration of the No 11 flat used by the Prime Minister and his fiancée Carrie Symonds. The murky arrangement with a donor was arrogant and clumsy.
But the crucial point is that none of it will change the views voters hold about him. We all know Johnson is a flawed character and his private life chaotic. What nobody has been able to prove yet is that he is corrupt.
Until anyone does, and none of the current furores appear to me to be going that way, Labour are barking up the wrong tree. For all of Keir Starmer’s righteous indignation, the polls haven’t moved. Even a guilty verdict from the Electoral Commission, which has launched a formal investigation into the matter of the flat, is unlikely to spell the end for Johnson.
This newspaper published an opinion poll on Monday that saw the Tories’ lead shrink to three points. But a poll on Sunday gave the Conservatives an 11-point lead, a new one yesterday a 10-point lead.
If anything, Labour’s front bench have shot themselves in the foot with a rather too synthetic response to what remains a largely impenetrable Westminster row.
As one senior Tory MP, who is no fan of Johnson at all, put it: “The only thing that matters in British politics over the next three years until the general election is whether Red Wall voters changed their mind. On this one, the Red Wall thinks, ‘it’s just more of your first-world problems that you southern lot are banging on about that have no effect on our lives’.”
We’ll get a fascinating gauge of the Red Wall’s political temperature a week tomorrow in Hartlepool, when the Teesside town elects a new MP. The by-election fight remains incredibly tight, and is going to be totemic. It’s Red Wall territory and was closely contested as a Tory target in 2019, when Labour missed a trick.
Red Wallers were won over by Boris Johnson’s flagship general election promise to level up — winning for left-behind towns in the Midlands and the North the same prosperity enjoyed by the South. Yet a small but growing number of Tory MPs are now feeling queasy that levelling up not only hasn’t begun, it shows no signs of beginning.
Where, exactly, is the plan, they ask? “I can’t see any evidence this massive challenge of ours has been gripped yet,” one former Tory minister told me. “Who’s in charge of it? Who’s actually doing all the thinking in No 10 for it? Nobody seems to know.”
Another frustrated senior Northern Tory MP blames the Treasury, which he thinks has been equally slow in paying for any levelling up. In the North, the ministry has “the engine of a lawnmower and the brakes of a Rolls-Royce”, he says.
Levelling up isn’t the only big promise that has gone AWOL. There is also the PM’s Day One pledge to solve the social care crisis, and his most recent one to ensure that disadvantaged school kids catch up on months of learning lost during the pandemic. Barely a squeak has emerged on either for months.
Boris Johnson’s great political Achilles heel isn’t greed or cronyism. It’s not incompetence either. It’s his addiction to over-promising. In the general election campaign of 2024, no Red Wallers will want to drink with the PM if they think he’s let them down.
Be careful what you say about Carrie, ministers...
Home Office junior minister Victoria Atkins is about as high flying as Tory MPs come.
The Cambridge-educated barrister was the very first of her talented 2015 intake to join the Government and get on the greasy pole. The daughter of the Tory MP Sir Robert Atkins, she has an impeccable political pedigree and is regularly tipped for a glittering Cabinet promotion. At least she was. The gossip between ministers this week is that Atkins let slip a disparaging remark about the PM’s fiancée Carrie Symonds.
Carrie is all-hearing. And Atkins has apparently now acquired the dreaded black mark, and faces a sideways move to Siberia instead. “Woe betide poor old Vicky now,” one minister tells me. We’ll see in July, when most now expect the reshuffle to come.
Atkins is not alone. The last to acquire a similar fate was thrusting civil service high flier Antonia Romeo. Tipped as the front runner to become the new Cabinet Secretary, it is alleged she committed the heinous offence of getting on too well with Boris.
Romeo was instead made Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Justice, where she is currently plotting a prison break.
Nightmare at the Brexit museum?
The Farage tribe’s latest project, The Museum of Brexit, has already procured its first items, I’m told. Funded by donors like Arron Banks, it has snapped up an imperial weights scale and a fishing net used on the first day the UK regained control over its territorial waters. But where to locate it? That’s TBC, but not necessarily London, which is wise if its benefactors have any care for visitor numbers.
Its website states: “A part of the country where it will get local support, with decent transport connectivity.” Barnard Castle perhaps?
Tom Newton Dunn is a presenter and Chief Political Commentator on Times Radio