30/04/2021 17:45 BST

Why Boris Johnson’s Alleged Sleaze Matters Even If The Polls Don’t Move Yet

This does have the potential to be quite harmful for the Tories.

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Despite the fire and fury of this week’s prime minister’s questions, it seems the cash for cushions row has so far amounted to little but a pillow fight in the eyes of voters.

Several polls in the last 24 hours have shown Tory numbers barely moving, with Labour’s even slightly down despite the sleaze allegations engulfing Boris Johnson.

And in a much less scientific test, a red wall Tory MP tells me they have had just 10 emails on the row over the past week from concerned voters.

Normally, we might give it a few more days before delivering a judgment on the impact of the row.

But the impending local elections next Thursday have led to a painful debate about whether it has had so-called “cut through” with the public.

Patrick English of YouGov tells me there is no doubt that it has, with nearly a third (31%) of the public following the story fairly or very closely, and a further 27% following it, if not closely.

The depressing truth seems that voters’ trust in politicians generally, and Johnson particularly, is so low that a row like this is “baked in”, says English.

“It’s not that they don’t care, or that they don’t want them to do it, they just sort of shrug and say they expect it from politicians.”

This has inevitably led to questions about whether Starmer has got his strategy right ahead of his first key electoral test.

The red wall Tory tells me the sleaze row is coming up more on the doorstep since Starmer’s evisceration of Johnson at prime minister’s questions.

But they wonder if his visit to a John Lewis store on Thursday (Carrie Symonds reportedly described the No.11 flat as a “John Lewis furniture nightmare”) may have been a mis-step, as voters are bringing up the row but in a “jokey” way.

Meanwhile, Tory election expert Lord Hayward believes Labour have missed opportunities to speak out on issues “which actually do matter to people now”, with jobs under threat at Liberty Steel in a situation linked to the Greensill lobbying scandal, the Toyoda Gosei factory closure in Rotherham and Nestle closing a factory in Newcastle.

Hayward says: “What they’ve been so obsessed with is sleaze, which appears in the immediate not to matter, that even issues that are there and matter to people on a day-by-day basis have actually gone by the board.

“And that I find absolutely staggering.”

Hayward does, however, believe political events can take a week or so to begin affecting polls, so there is time yet for the Labour leader on sleaze.

Looking beyond the local elections too, Starmer will have positioned himself as a leader on the issue if the Electoral Commission or other watchdogs punish Johnson or the Tories over the flat.

And the underlying numbers are not great for the PM should things go badly, with a YouGov trust rating of –22 and less than half of Tory voters more inclined to believe Johnson over top aide Dominic Cummings, who is promising to damage the PM at his select committee appearance on May 26.

English tells Tories: “I definitely wouldn’t be jubilant.

“If it just gets worse or if it does not go away, the figures of who is following it is only going to go up, the figures that say ‘I’m aware of it but I don’t care’ are only going to go down.

“That does have the potential to be quite harmful, there’s a lot of potential for this to move quickly in the wrong direction for the Tories.”

Meanwhile senior Tories, speaking privately this week, fear the collateral damage caused by the sleaze rows. 

They worry about what happens to the party’s poll numbers when the twin effects of the vaccine bounce and the furlough life support scheme for jobs end, and if stories like this become more important to voters amid job losses.

Some even wonder whether Johnson can still carry out the big reshuffle many believe is coming soon, and will root out incompetence in government.

Can you sack Robert Jenrick following cronyism allegations when you yourself are facing them? Can you fire Gavin Williamson for incompetence when you can’t even file your register of interests on time? And if you can’t have a better Cabinet, do we see a repeat of the exams fiasco?

Starmer, as my colleague Paul Waugh suggested earlier this week, may be able to promote Johnson from “Major Sleaze” to the potentially far more damaging “General Shambles”.

Others also worry that a good performance in the local elections next week in the face of the sleaze row can only breed complacency in Downing Street about the need to improve standards in public office.

And that could lead to a very bad place, with faith in politics and politicians already so low.