The prime minister needs a triumph at the ballot box. He probably won’t get it
In José Saramago's 2004 novel Seeing, a government in crisis calls an election, only to find more than 70 percent of the ballots come in blank. They call another one, but the blank ballots pile up even higher. In the ensuing chaos, hysterical ministers jockey for crumbs of power and the president of the unnamed country announces he is shutting down the government and all of its services.
"You are now a lawless city," the president warns, after telling the public. "I pray to heaven … that tomorrow remorse will seep gently into your hearts and you will become reconciled with legality … returning, like the prodigal son, to the paternal home."
It's a speech British Prime Minister Boris Johnson might want to keep in his pocket for the aftermath of his hoped-for general election on Dec. 12—if it happens. YouGov has conducted polls every month since the summer following the referendum on Brexit in 2016, asking which major party leader would make the best prime minister. Since January, the average number of voters who answered "not sure" has consistently remained around 40 percent. In May, a particularly bleak month, the figure rose to the majority (55 percent) of those surveyed.
After a series of humiliating parliamentary defeats, the increasingly hard-right British prime minister needs a big win. Current polling shows that he has a decent chance—the Conservatives are well ahead of the Labour Party in public support. But that's proved an increasingly unreliable predictor in a volatile climate for voters, as former Prime Minister Theresa May found in her own disastrous election. Johnson may be riding on an electoral strategy that will be scuppered by the Tories' inability to shake off their image as the party of the posh.
For the right, Brexit has been heralded as the magic key with which to unlock the northern, working-class vote, a demographic traditionally loyal to the Labour Party.
This hope was fueled by a brief boom in support for the UK Independence Party, a single-issue party whose foremost goal was to leave the European Union. The party made gains across the country prior to the referendum, but it was the increased Conservative share of the vote in the by-elections for traditionally safe Labour Party seats that gained the most media attention.
After nearly a decade of austerity and Conservative domination, England has seen a significant widening of the north-south divide. Yorkshire and the Humber and North East England have suffered—recent figures show that both regions have had the lowest increase in regional gross domestic product since 2012 in England and Wales. Despite commitments to close this gap, studies show that years of public spending cuts hit northern areas the hardest, causing increasing poverty and depressed wages, with child poverty in the north of England on an uninterrupted rise. The narrative of "taking back control" that dominated the Brexit campaign was a convenient outlet for the frustrations of a population left behind by their government.
Bolstered by the success of the referendum campaign three years ago, Johnson has attempted to recreate a similar narrative at 10 Downing Street. Preparing for the next election, the government's strategy is fan the flames of anti-establishment sentiment by presenting their failure to pass a single bill or reach a deal with the European Union as a case of "the people versus Parliament"; determined to remain in the EU, they say, members of Parliament will go to any length to ignore the will of the people.
Further announcements at this year's Conservative Party Conference showed the government banking on an unprecedented rebrand, with Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid declaring the Conservatives "the party of the workers." Though Brexit still dominated the conference, promises of a rise in the national living wage and increased spending on roads suggested the government is making strategic moves to appeal to low-income voters, who are also seen as the most likely demographic to support Brexit.
That's electorally vital, in part because traditionally upper-middle-class bastions of Conservative support are under siege by the centrist third party, the Liberal Democrats, thanks to voters increasingly alienated by Brexit. The party is in danger of being wiped out entirely in London, and is already nearly dead in Scotland—which voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union. The forcing out of moderate, pro-European conservatives under Johnson is likely to push swing voters hard toward the Liberal Democrats—meaning the Tories have to make big gains in Labour's working-class northern heartland to have any chance of a majority government.
But it is unclear how the government can pretend to represent the ordinary man under the leadership of a politician who exemplifies casual aristocratic contempt. Johnson's chief ally, House of Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg, was pictured slouching across the front bench during a crucial debate. Rees-Mogg has tried to capitalize on the same upper-class eccentricity that made Johnson popular, but with little success—just 18 percent of voters have a positive image of him. The "very English brand of eccentricity," as the BBC put it in 2016, that endeared many to Johnson as mayor of London is also inseparable from antiquated ideas of authority, class, and aristocracy in England—and voters become much more hostile toward the upper classes when the stakes are raised.
Even former Prime Minister David Cameron could never quite shake off the image of Eton, no matter how hard he tried. Cameron's core team—Johnson, George Osborne, Jeremy Hunt, and Michael Gove—were all privately educated, all alumni of Oxford University, and all but Gove confirmed members of the infamous Bullingdon Club, a drinking society for posh students.
A photograph of a young Johnson and Cameron, dressed in tailcoats and posing on the steps of Oxford alongside other members of the exclusive, all-male Bullingdon Club was published by the Mail on Sunday in 2007, becoming perhaps the most infamous symbol of the disconnection between Britain's haves and have-nots. Stories emerged of the club destroying restaurants and burning 50-pound notes in front of homeless people. The photograph was such an embarrassment that the company which held copyright withdrew permission for republishing, prompting newspapers to commission a painting of the print so that it could continue to be distributed.
That helped spell the end for the Bullingdon Club's two-century history of privilege. Once a symbol of exclusivity, by 2016, it had become so unpopular it faced extinction—with only two remaining members because "no one wanted to join," and members being banned from holding positions under the Oxford University Conservative Association. A year later, Johnson was heckled by students, one of whom shouted, "Do you want to smash a restaurant? Do you want to burn 50 pounds in front of a homeless person?" upon returning to his former college.
Politicians such as Johnson have been brought up believing in their right to rule; his sister admitted that even as a child, Johnson told people he wanted to be "world king." While Johnson's Jeeves and Wooster act may have brought him some success as mayor, a position of little power in which his quirks were perceived as harmless, the public has become much more scrutinizing. Nearly the same percentage of voters that rated Johnson as having done a "good job" as mayor said he did a "bad job" as foreign secretary, and though more than half (52 percent) of those surveyed said they believed Johnson was a "completely new type of Prime Minister," 50 percent said they believed he would do a "poor" or "terrible" job. The majority of voters also considered Johnson to be incompetent, inauthentic, dishonest, and out of touch.
Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn doesn't fare any better in the polls—but that may not be enough to save Johnson, especially with the Liberal Democrats hoping to steal seats from both sides. Polling has been consistently chaotic over the last year, and tactical voting by pro-Remain voters could cripple Johnson's chances. Most critically, Johnson's hard-line lurch toward "no deal" has left him almost certainly unable to form the kind of alliance that a minority Tory government would need to survive. Without a majority, it's back to defeat after defeat.
Johnson has climbed the ladder of chaos to become prime minister, only to find it wobbling under his feet. Stuck in a stalemate, voters are becoming increasingly apathetic—and an avalanche of blank ballots could leave the prime minister stuck in a permanently paralyzed political hell of his own making.
Kitty Wenham is an English journalist.