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Boris Johnson owes his 80-seat majority, just like his twin victories in Labour-dominated London, in large part to two formidable political assets: a rogueish charm and deceptively simple messaging. From ‘Boris bikes’ to ‘Get Brexit Done’, the branding is both personal and political.
But when it comes to his own backbenchers, the personal charm needs to be done, well, in person. And without an effective, roadtested-to-death slogan, the wooing falls flat or risks backfiring.
The reception for his Commons statement on Afghanistan certainly underscored the sheer power of his personality and his presence. The whips did an efficient job, but unlike just three weeks ago when he scuttled out of the chamber after a lacklustre defence of the evacuation chaos, today he breezed through it.
To hear the PM’s version of events, the whole episode was an unparalleled triumph rather than the shaming defeat many had claimed. Most difficult questions were ignored or blathered over, but there was a marked lack of bite too among backbenchers with a military background. Punches were pulled and tongues bitten as the heckles focused on Keir Starmer.
Whereas the one-day recall of parliament’s cheek-by-jowl atmosphere had heightened the Tory unease and shock at Kabul’s rapid fall, today was much more a back-to-school mood with everyone wanting to cheer on the head boy. On the Tory side, only Tobias Ellwood dared warn of “a void of leadership” on Afghanistan.
The feuding Dominic Raab and Ben Wallace were deliberately placed either side of the PM, still miles apart in many ways (Raab shook his head when urged to resign, while Wallace had an indifferent middle distance stare) but with Johnson asserting himself at the centre.
Politics is a contact sport, not just in tackling your opponent but also in literally making contact with your own side. The gladhanding, backslapping, ear-whispering is only possible once social distancing is dumped and Johnson made the most of the sheer wall of noise that can cover up the most vacuous of replies.
The charm offensive continued later at the riverside terrace reception for the backbench 1922 committee, when the PM turned up as the surprise support act for chancellor Rishi Sunak. His joke about Michael Gove (“we opened up the nightclubs and then we sent our ministers out to enjoy them”) went down well, but the very fact he made the effort to be there told its own story.
With the looming national insurance rise the elephant in the room, it was Sunak who acknowledged the tension, admitting there was a “tough autumn ahead” with “disagreements” likely within the party. “But we should never lose sight of the central fact that we are a team...presenting a united front to the country”.
Perhaps to scotch all those stories about his leaked letter on Covid travel restrictions, Sunak also stressed his personal loyalty to the PM, adding “I, like all of you, take our lead from the Prime Minister”.
Tory backbenchers like to be stroked, so the whole event was a chance to soften up opinion ahead of Tuesday’s expected NI rise announcement. MPs still want to see the detail, and many are furious about any tax rises, but some are already resigned to doing the loyal thing as long as they can be helped to sell the policy.
And that’s where Johnson really needs to find not just charm but effective comms. So far, everyone knows only the downside of the plan (the cost hit) rather than the upside. It feels as if the upside will be an emphasis that this is really all about helping the NHS, with social care almost pitched as a bonus further down the line.
Crucially, with three years of the new money apparently going on Covid recovery funding for the NHS, social care and all its complex needs may not get the money until after the next election.
Whereas Tony Blair spent time and effort on the groundwork for his national insurance rise in 2002, Johnson wasted the chance to do so this summer, even before the Afghan crisis dominated. Similarly, breaking the manifesto pledge on pensions needed more time to stress the money saved would go on the NHS.
And although Labour will hammer home NI is a “jobs tax”, and say it’s another example of the young subsidising the old, polls already show the public are willing to accept a hike as long as it goes to the health service.
Even the social care costs cap of £80,000 would help homeowners more in Red Wall seats than some assume (not as much as in the south but still useful). The policy is certainly sellable, if only ministers want to actually sell it.
Dominic Cummings’ big red bus slogan about £350m a week going from Brussels to the NHS just showed the power of our health service when yoked to (or even shoehorned into) another more divisive issue.
That’s why this will be a ‘health and social care’ levy not a ‘social care and health’ levy. Don’t be surprised if the NHS logo, used and abused by ‘NHS Test and Trace’, is commandeered again.
Labour’s main weapon at the next election would not be about the detail but about the principle of a politician breaking his promises. On taxes, pensions and overseas aid, each broken promise plays to different audiences that could add up to serious voter numbers. One northern Labour backbencher in a target marginal tells me former “Boris fans” are already disillusioned with him.
Yet, voters have cut Johnson a lot of slack in the pandemic, so the gamble may just pay off. The pitch-rolling is late and light (an eve-of-announcement message about not ducking ‘tough’ choices) and using up political capital would be a first for a PM who loves being loved.
He could yet convince the public that the very fact that he’s willingly doing something as unpopular as a tax rise really proves he’s serious about something for once, and that serious thing is a short term NHS rescue and long-term care for the elderly.
But he’ll need every cabinet minister, not just the even more charming Sunak, to bat hard for the policy. And quite a lot of backbenchers too.
That’s easier said than done. One Tory MP told me tonight: “There is a lot of frustration a couple of millionaires [Johnson and Javid] and a billionaire [Sunak] will announce a tax rise on the poorest paid while cutting £20 a week Universal Credit off them soon after. It is amazing they cannot see how unfair it will seem to lower paid workers.”