The very best politicians know they can make the weather
The rise to popularity is based on a shifting brew of passing whim, subjective personal opinion, and unquantifiable emotions, which are then put through a war of attrition to see how long it will last. Events, mistakes and changing fashions take their toll.
Few things last forever. Opinion polls certainly do not lead. At the weekend, the Conservatives fell behind Labor for the first time since January.
The very best politicians have the courage and will to seize the moment and forge a strong electoral position and then duck the various slingshots and arrows that life throws at them in order to keep them going for as long as possible. The Westminster game is not a quest to complete, it is a ferocious challenge that remains on the principle of the winner.
Even the best fall at some point – they lose contact, they burn up their capital, times change or their colleagues become impatient and so on. However, it’s important to remember that losing a lead is not in itself a sure sign of the beginning of the end. In the past, voters often scolded prime ministers at halftime and then re-elected them.
Tony Blair fell behind William Hague during the gasoline strike in 2000, before claiming two more big electoral victories.
The Conservatives lagged Labor in the polls for most of the 2010-2015 parliament, only to win a majority in the end.
Margaret Thatcher’s joint lowest approval rating came in March 1981 before occupying Downing Street for another nine and a half years.
The big question for the government is what these numbers mean. There are dangers in every direction. If Thatcher and her colleagues had gotten into a tailspin in 1981, they would have wasted a huge opportunity. On the flip side, when their ratings hit the same number in March 1990, it was really a banshee that heralded the end. Finding the right time to raise concern is important.
First of all, it is important to investigate exactly what is causing the problem. Too often the declaration conveniently coincides with the person’s personal hobbyhorse (Brexit! Sleaze allegations! The appeal of Starmer despite the shortcomings of socialism! The appeal of socialism despite the shortcomings of Starmer! Insufficient pledges at COP26! Excessive pledges at COP26! ).
Breaking wishful thinking requires rational, disciplined, and clear-sighted counselors who are empowered from above to spread and listen to inconvenient truths.
Second, those judging the Conservatives’ position must insist on consistency in the statement. If it is the sheer effectiveness of the opposition that caused this, and the administration is not in fault, then everyone must step up their game to defend themselves against the serious threat posed by the Labor Party. On the other hand, if Starmer is nothing special, it must mean that the polling problem is in large part due to casual government errors.
I tend to take the latter view – as I wrote back in September: “Starmer may not kick the door of 10 Downing Street, but the government still has the power to accidentally open it.”
After all, the government must set the agenda and not just be a spectator. As Bim Afolami MP wrote on ConservativeHome this week, “The real complaint from the public is that they believe that the MPs and government are not doing their jobs effectively enough. Dare I say it, I think you are right. ”
Blair, Cameron and Thatcher could all have concluded that their negative first-term polls were a definite prediction for the future and would have given up. Instead, they thought it was a passing snapshot that could be changed by their own actions. The very best politicians know they can make the weather: Boris Johnson’s party will now look to him.
Mark Wallace is the executive director of Conservative Home, a political blog independent of the Conservative Party