The danger is that the quarrel will reinforce their old vulnerabilities: that they appear to be after themselves, a party led by and for the privileged wealthy
I know McDonald’s isn’t ultimately a healthy way to eat, but I’m deeply suspicious of the various ways Ronald McDonald and his friends have attempted to make the place appear more upscale.
One of my true vices is my love for McDonald’s. As my mother strongly disapproved of the place as a child, a trip there brings with it the exhilarating thrill of both youthful rebellion and an authentic adult sense of freedom. (Sorry Mom.)
I would never voluntarily eat the fruit there, and I’m skeptical about the bottled water. Still, I’ll happily, albeit with guilt, sip an extra large Coca-Cola and nibble on a McDonald’s fries. (I’m really, really sorry, Mum.)
Why don’t I trust McDonald’s fruit? Finally, I love fruit and I love McDonald’s. It comes down to brand association: I associate McDonald’s with all sorts of delicious but unhealthy foods that are high in sugar, salt and fat, and I believe and expect them to do those things safely and well.
I actively distance McDonald’s from healthy things like bottled water and fresh fruit, and I suspect they probably put something dodgy in both. I know this is unfair and irrational, but I still believe it is so.
Political parties have similar problems: there are issues on which they are simply less trusted than their opponents. You can change these perceptions over a long period of years if you work very hard, but a big part of the political game is just making sure the debate is on areas that work well for you – and avoid them that create lasting negative perceptions about your brand.
That’s the real danger of stories about the various government Christmas celebrations that may or may not have happened last year (but let’s face it, it definitely did).
When the elections come around, the big voting issues will really matter: which party is more trusted on fighting crime, tackling climate change, running the economy, running the NHS and building schools?
Everything else, down to the character of the party leaders, will be secondary to these big questions.
People are getting overly excited about what individual rows mean for government health: could this be the end of Boris Johnson? Will he be able to push through his agenda? But the next election isn’t tomorrow, so it doesn’t matter if the government is currently unpopular.
What matters is whether the government will still be unpopular in 2023 or more likely in 2024 when the next elections take place.
The long-term problem Downing Street party history is creating is that it may be enough to change perceptions of the party more profoundly. We are asked to believe that the PM is either so incompetent that his staff could plan and hold a party without him noticing, or that the best and most creative excuse the PM could think of was the one given could have a party, but when there was one he didn’t notice. Neither is a great look.
Expertise isn’t the only thing that matters in elections – no matter how hard you try to convince my mother that the chefs at McDonald’s are absolutely competent; She still believes McDonald’s violates her values and beliefs, so my love for this restaurant will always be a source of parental shame.
Still, looking deeply incompetent can be enough to change voters’ views for good. If salmonella turned out to be rampant in McDonald’s kitchens, I would never go there again, even if it was late at night and I really, really wanted to.
What jeopardizes Boris Johnson is that he looks ridiculous: and not in the endearing way that has served him well in the past, but in the way he would that would spell the end of his political life hopes mean.
Ultimately, a government that can’t even ensure that an illegal party doesn’t take place in its own offices can’t really be expected to save the planet or address anti-social behavior or other major issues facing the world today.
And the danger for the Conservative Party is that the crash will reinforce its old brand vulnerability: that it appears to be after itself, a party run by and for the privileged wealthy, rather than the country as a whole.
It’s these political wounds that could end up ending the government – and not the question of whether a couple of government Christmas parties will make the next few weeks a bit harder.
Stephen Bush is a political editor at The New Statesman magazine.