Boris Johnson has been Prime Minister for less than two years, during which time there has been frequent speculation about an early exit from office.
Johnson keeps on defying his critics
First many wondered whether he would survive proroguing parliament, or a general election. As the second wave of Covid-19 hit Britain and his government’s handling of the pandemic came under fire, Betfair odds rated him likelier to leave before finishing a full-term than not.
Some resilient polls and a vaccine bounce later, those markets have turned around. Johnson is now rated 56% likely at 1.824/5 to leave in 2024 or later, and 1.330/100 (77%) to survive past July 2022. Are we about to see another switch in market momentum?
Opponents continue to point to Britain’s terrible Covid death toll and the astonishing misuse of public money regarding Test and Trace, or PPE contracts. It seems as if another shocking revelation emerges every other day. Yet there is no evidence that any of this is hurting the Tories, or the Prime Minister.
Westminster voting intention:
CON: 44% (+2)
LAB: 36% (-2)
LDEM: 6% (-)
GRN: 4% (-)
UKIP: 4% (+1)
REFUK: 3% (-)
via @DeltapollUK, 25 – 27 Mar
Chgs. w/ 26 Feb
? Britain Elects (@BritainElects) March 28, 2021
Those latest numbers from Deltapoll rather puncture Labour excitement at a couple of weekend polls showing the Tory lead down to 4%. Let’s be crystal clear. Being 4% behind, mid-term, against a government with very little to boast about, is nothing to get excited about. Keir Starmer’s position against Johnson is, frankly, awful.
Party Leaders’ Approval Ratings:
Boris Johnson (CON): 42% (-3)
Keir Starmer (LAB): 30% (-4)
via @OpiniumResearch, 25-26 Mar
(Changes with 12 Mar)
? Opros Politics (@OprosUK) March 27, 2021
Party Leader (and Chancellor) Approval Ratings:
Johnson (CON): 47% (+3)
Starmer (LAB): 32% (=)
Sunak (CON): 50% (+4)
via @RedfieldWilton, 22 Mar
(Changes with 15 Mar)
? Opros Politics (@OprosUK) March 23, 2021
Labour attacks aren’t cutting through
One can never definitively explain polls and leader ratings but obviously they don’t represent an endorsement of the aforementioned government failures. The Covid contracts scandal simply hasn’t cut through or moved the needle. The opposition’s best hope is that something else will, and start an avalanche.
Perhaps we should look beyond serious politics and focus on the trivia that invariably does cut through. Sex. Specifically a sex scandal with a further morality dimension, that cannot be dismissed as a purely private matter, because it is tied to the misuse of funds.
Jennifer Arcuri claims she had a four-year affair with Johnson, between 2012 and 2016, when he was London Mayor. During this period, Johnson’s wife Marina Wheeler underwent cancer surgery. Downing Street refuses to comment.
In a normal era, this would be tabloid gold. In 2021, the press are more one-sided than ever. The Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Express, let alone the right-wing blogosphere, will not want to focus on this story, just as they didn’t when Arcuri first arrived on the media scene.
GLA inquiry will be a damaging distraction
Ultimately though, events may force their hand. The Greater London Assembly are investigating whether he misused his position when taking Arcuri on trade missions, and in her receipt of £126,000 of public cash in events sponsorships and grants. Johnson’s Press Secretary swerved committing to his appearance at the inquiry, but this probably amounts to merely a holding tactic.
The PM will either have to appear before the GLA or be accused of hiding and appear guilty. Whereas his private life has long been scandalous, and is obviously factored into his current popularity, an affair whilst his wife underwent cancer treatment may upset supporters who don’t otherwise care about his adultery. Forget the press. Loose Women will be all over this.
At the very least, it will be a deeply unwelcome distraction for a government dealing with a pandemic and economic crisis. In one sense that helps Johnson, making the scandal look trivial. In another it makes him a liability for his party.
Tory lead would likely persist under new leader
The Tory lead in the polls is not due to Boris Johnson. Evidently for the past 15 years, the UK electorate has preferred them to Labour. There are structural and policy issues at play, that go much deeper than the leaders. The PM’s ratings have fallen in the last year. There’s nothing to say they would fare any worse without him.
I’ve felt from the start that Johnson would be a short-term PM. He was incredibly useful when the Tories needed to deliver Brexit, eclipse Nigel Farage and defeat Jeremy Corbyn. But he isn’t a serious politician that understands policy and detail, or even apparently turn up at all Cobra meetings. Tory MPs had grave doubts before selecting him and probably retain them.
Mid-term rebrand under new leader makes sense
Whether it comes during, or as a direct result of the Arcuri affair, is far from clear, but I do believe at some stage in this parliament, there will be a Tory leadership contest. A fresh face will, temporarily at least, rebrand before the next election. Rishi Sunak is in pole position, with what I’d measure a superior personal brand, although as discussed recently, there are alternatives.
Laying Johnson at odds-on in both of those exit date markets appeals. The 2022 option is ambitious, but a cheap trade that could transform with speculation. Laying before the next election is preferable though, because it offers potentially two more years for the bet to land.
The trading potential is worth emphasising. It is common for explosive stories to bubble underneath the surface, or be ignored due to their inconvenience. If and when they become unavoidable, all hell breaks loose and speculation becomes rampant. There were great opportunities to trade Theresa May’s exit date. Going further back, so too Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Given Johnson’s track record, expect the same.
Follow Paul on Twitter and check out his website, Political Gambler.
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