SIMON WALTERS: Boris Johnson needs a shot in the arm all over again

SIMON WALTERS: Batley by-election loss proves Boris Johnson needs a shot in the arm all over again

Until a week ago Matt Hancock was sitting at the same Cabinet table as his friend and colleague Tory co-chairman Amanda Milling.

As Health Secretary in charge of handling the pandemic he was in effect the second most important member of the Government.

Yesterday, Mr Hancock suffered the public humiliation of being personally blamed by his former Cabinet ally for the Tories’ failure to win the Batley and Spen by-election. It is about as brutal as politics gets.

Tory and Labour figures I spoke to yesterday agreed that the ‘Hancock factor’ had helped Labour limp over the line

Tory and Labour figures I spoke to yesterday agreed that the ‘Hancock factor’ had helped Labour limp over the line

Miss Milling said Matt Hancock being filmed on CCTV in his office could have scuppered the election for the Tories

 Miss Milling said Matt Hancock being filmed on CCTV in his office could have scuppered the election for the Tories

Asked whether it had been a factor in the result that Hancock had been filmed on CCTV in his office in a clinch with a lover who was also on the Government payroll, Miss Milling said: ‘I’ve got to be honest, it did come up.’

Until Hancock’s exposure, and his belated resignation, the Conservatives were expected to win Batley and Spen in West Yorkshire. That expectation was a reflection of Boris Johnson’s extraordinary achievement in turning Labour’s so-called ‘Red Wall’ of seats in the working class North of England into a blue fortress.

His dominance was demonstrated when the Tories triumphed in a by-election in Hartlepool, another Labour stronghold, just two months ago. But the referendum and election-winning juggernaut that is Boris Johnson faltered in Batley and Spen. The Conservatives fell just short as Labour clung on by 323 votes.

Tory and Labour figures I spoke to yesterday agreed that the ‘Hancock factor’ had helped Labour limp over the line.

Some Conservatives said that it wasn’t so much Hancock’s disgraceful conduct that caused a backlash as the Prime Minister’s failure to sack him on the spot.

Hancock resigned a day after the scandal broke – but Johnson had stood by him immediately afterwards and tried to face down the public uproar. The respected Tory pollster Lord Hayward told me: ‘There is a perception the handling of the Hancock episode – rather than the incident itself – has made some voters unwilling to support the Conservative Party.’

The mere fact the Tories were shocked to lose Batley and Spen – and Labour even more shocked to win it – is a reflection of Mr Johnson’s remarkable dominance of the political landscape. Despite retaining the seat, Labour’s share of the vote fell by 7 percentage points.

I cannot have been the only one who winced at football fan Sir Keir Starmer’s feeble boast that ‘Labour’s back, Labour’s coming home’.

It was like Gareth Southgate declaring victory if Ukraine take a six-goal lead in today’s match and England then claw a goal back. Starmer may have kept Labour’s vultures – from his ambitious Left-wing deputy Angela Rayner to Blairite former Cabinet minister Andy Burnham – at bay for now.

But the vicious Labour infighting yesterday over why the party didn’t romp home in Batley and Spen showed that embattled Starmer has little or no hope of uniting his warring factions.

From the Left, Jeremy Corbyn’s ally MP Diane Abbott pointedly declined to congratulate Starmer on his victory. From the Right, Tony Blair’s ally Lord Mandelson accused Corbyn’s supporters of campaigning against the Labour candidate in Batley and Spen.

It is true that Labour would have won more easily if rabble-rousing Left-wing candidate and former MP George Galloway had not won most of the Muslim vote. But opposition to Starmer from the traditionally Labour-voting Muslim community, which is annoyed that he has toned down Corbyn’s pro-Palestinian stance, could threaten him in future elections.

As for the Tories, beneath the cloud of frustration, some strategists see a silver lining. ‘The public has decided Starmer is a dud,’ said one.

‘If Batley and Spen keeps him there until the next election it is a price worth paying.’ I agree with those who say Batley and Spen suggests one of the most extraordinary five years in British politics is coming to a close.

Since 2016 politics has been dominated by Brexit and Covid. Mr Johnson won a landslide election victory in 2019 by getting Brexit right. And his popularity has stayed sky-high on the back of the vaccine

Since 2016 politics has been dominated by Brexit and Covid. Mr Johnson won a landslide election victory in 2019 by getting Brexit right. And his popularity has stayed sky-high on the back of the vaccine

Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer (L) and Labour MP Kim Leadbeater

Britain’s main opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer (L) and Labour MP Kim Leadbeater 

Since 2016 politics has been dominated by Brexit and Covid. Mr Johnson won a landslide election victory in 2019 by getting Brexit right. And his popularity has stayed sky-high on the back of the vaccine.

Those two factors saw him crush Labour in a by-election two months ago in Hartlepool.

But it didn’t work in Batley and Spen. One Conservative from a ‘Red Wall’ constituency who campaigned there told me: ‘I owe my seat to Boris but people in Batley were not happy with his dithering on Hancock. It was tin-eared.

‘He made the same mistake when he wouldn’t get shot of Dominic Cummings over the Barnard Castle trip.

‘People are grateful for the vaccine success but that effect won’t go on for ever. There has to be greater discipline and direction from No 10. Now Covid is coming to an end, people will be less forgiving.’

As Lord Hayward explained: ‘We are going back to what I call “politics as normal”. Opposition parties don’t lose by-elections and governments don’t win them. The Government will now have to turn its attention to general affairs, as all governments do, but this one has not had to do until now.’

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