The stunning Liberal Democrat victory in the North Shropshire by election is so far off the charts as to leave political commentators in unmapped territory. A hitherto third-placed party has vaulted into first place with a 34% swing. Voters in a rural, Leave-supporting Tory stronghold have plumped for the metropolitan, Remain-inclined Liberal Democrats. Most worrying for the prime minister, the electorate has reacquired its taste for seeking out the most efficient use of an anti-Conservative vote, conjuring remembrances of by elections past from the early 1990s. We all know what came next.
Like explorers bickering over the loss of their map, those offering advice to the prime minister will be urging a fast scramble back to their own familiar territory. Inevitably, most of it will be a louder reiteration of whatever that adviser always called for. Brexit warriors will suggest a renewed focus on the ‘Great Cause’ of 2019 – particularly in light of the weekend’s shock resignation of the hardline Brexit minister, Lord Frost. Fiscal hawks prefer 2015 as their model and will urge a return to tighter spending control and lower taxes. The libertarian wing will wonder aloud at the connection between freedom-destroying anti-Covid measures and Boris Johnson’s fading electoral appeal. For the next few days, expect every second column to propose some kind of magical shake-up in Number 10. More grown-ups and fewer partying idiots is the winning formula, apparently.
The biggest immediate challenge for Boris Johnson is to ignore this cacophony of self-serving takes. Thankfully, it is not our role at the Institute for Government to come up with party-political advice. Our own self-serving take is to suggest No10 strikes out into the undiscovered territory of policy delivery.
I have some experience in Downing Street during a much worse, indeed terminal period for the prime minister in question (2017-19). From the outside, and for anyone who takes their reading of the government from the briefings of the political chatterati, it can appear that political turmoil and electoral loss entirely paralyses the centre of government.
This does not need to be the case. The first lesson is that things can still be done, but not if everything is framed as somehow the answer to the political mess the prime minister has become mired in. If every policy initiative is taken over by the people tasked with managing the prime minister’s image and political fortunes, then the result will be worst, not better. They are much more likely to force a blink-test rethink of a carefully worked out programme than inject anything of real value.
For example, it might be argued that neither Levelling Up nor Net Zero were of any use for winning the North Shropshire by election. Fine; they probably weren’t. But neither are they likely to have been particularly relevant to the debacle. Similarly, during my time in No10, it is highly doubtful whether the Online Harms white paper, passage of Net Zero legislation, development of industrial policy or toughening of competition rules did anything to strengthen Theresa May’s hand in her intra-party Brexit fights. But they all led to valuable policy (now coming to fruition under Johnson ), and part of May’s legacy.
Another temptation to resist is a retreat to the comfort-zone of Brexit wars. The non-salience of our exit from the EU to the electors of North Shropshire is telling, when set against its prominence in the 2019 election. But the poll two years ago presented voters with extreme options: between Revoke from one side and Get Brexit Done on another. This is a situation we will never see again. Meanwhile, as a new covid variant surges against a backdrop of high inflation and shortages, ordinary people are much more concerned with the actual effects of policies, rather than their distant promise and tribal associations. This increasingly includes attitudes towards the European Union. Only a small minority of people judge Brexit to be going well, and only a minority of Leavers. Voters still think Brexit is important, but because they think it could be handled better, not because they are hankering for more tribal fights. As Anand Menon and Alan Wager argue, Brexit has just become a matter of competence.  Time to accept that the war is over, and manage the peace.
It is clearly quite otiose to urge the prime minister to keep focussed upon Covid. He has been, in spite of the frivolous impression generated by party images from a year ago. The painful loss of Conservative backbench support this week has no doubt generated pressure to find ways to assuage the passionate libertarians who rebelled. This is a serious problem for the Conservative Party, because the instincts of this wing of the party go against both the scientific advice and the views of most voters, who are perfectly willing to curtail their social activity to cut the risk of infection. The only safe and correct course is to continue to weigh up the right steps in light of the scientific advice.
In many ways, Downing Street’s reaction to omicron has been as impressive as in any other phase of the covid pandemic. The recognition of its threat was swift, the strategy – to focus on boosters, and communicate this immediately – relatively clear, and the decision to push ahead despite his own party’s opposition was brave. Even the enormous amounts spent on test and trace have gained some extra justification, now that there is such a cry for more testing capacity. The storm around last year’s (alleged) illegal partygoing has prevented the prime minister from saying anything meaningful about cutting back on social interactions, but on this his excellent chief medical officer has more than made up for the silence. That the government and prime minister are gaining no credit for their omicron reaction is purely down to the scandalous stories from a year ago, and the unwise decision to deny too strongly what happened. It is in no way a sign that the libertarians were right, nor that the prime minister would gain popularity by going to war with his own advisers on covid.
The past month’s political spasms may mark a historical turning point in the story of this administration – comparable to September 1992 for the John Mayor administration, or the autumn of 2007 for Gordon Brown. Those are not happy comparisons for the prime minister to contemplate. But each of these predecessors also left behind some impressive achievements, despite being constantly under pressure for the rest of their time in government. It is much more boring to work on the delivery of a policy programme, and no one should pretend that a comprehensive Net Zero Plan or a stupendous Levelling Up White Paper might undo the damage of the past month. But a little boredom is perhaps just what this prime minister needs.