Premium

The Westminster Bubble is missing the bigger picture in its frenetic focus on the Tory psychodrama

Pic shows: Theresa May speech - Tory Party Conference 2017 Amber Rudd gives Boris a look Pic supplied by Pixel8000 Ltd 
Boris Johnson alongside former Cabinet Ministers Amber Rudd and Philip Hammond

The polls just aren’t reflecting the 'dire' week Boris Johnson has had

Boris Johnson is a disaster. 

He’s the first Prime Minister to be defeated in his opening vote since Pitt the Younger in 1783. He has subsequently lost his majority, sacked Winston Churchill’s grandson, and watched his own brother quit his government, quickly followed by the well-respected work and pensions secretary who accused him of “political vandalism”.  His performances at the despatch box are starting to sound rambling and desperate, and the Irish Taoiseach has just humiliated him on live TV. 

If that’s your view, you’ve clearly been paying too much attention. Those of us who grew up in the nineties will remember the phenomenon of Magic Eye pictures: impossibly intricate and nonsensical patterns that, if you stared at them from the right angle, suddenly morphed to reveal a completely different – and much clearer – image. Think of the last week’s psychodrama in Westminster in the same way.

For avid politicos, every day has been a series of shock-horror developments: personalities clashing, brutal blue-on-blue savaging, and the Prime Minister backed further and further into a corner from which escape looks increasingly unlikely. But take a step back, squint, and the picture shifts. 

Consider the Prime Minister’s ill-fated speech in front of police in Yorkshire. Boris turned up late and disheveled, waffled incoherently, and was later criticised by the West Yorkshire Police chief constable for using the officers as a “backdrop” for a political speech.  That’s great column fodder if you’re a political sketch writer, but the line to hit the headlines the next day – that is still leading the news now – was the Prime Minister’s pledge that he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than ask the EU to extend the Brexit deadline.

It’s the same with the manoeuvres in parliament. For political junkies, the success of the Remain Alliance in seizing control of the Commons order paper and ramming through a masterfully written bill courtesy of Dominic Grieve in record time is one of the underdog triumphing against overwhelming odds. Outside the Westminster bubble, however, where people do not tend to go into heat over the intricacies of Erskine May, it looks a lot like parliament is playing dirty to prevent the PM from doing his job.

That disconnect between the big picture and how things seem if you have your nose pressed up against the Westminster glass is why the polls just aren’t reflecting the dire week Boris has just had. Yes, support has fallen from the summer honeymoon, but the weekend polls (that’s post parliamentary meltdown and sibling bust-up) still put him above Labour, who should be miles ahead if losing 24 MPs mattered as much as insiders think it does. Just today, a Britain Elects poll for the Financial Times found that voters prefer Boris Johnson as PM to Jeremy Corbyn by 2:1.

This doesn't mean that Team Boris can celebrate just yet. The wider electorate may not know who Ken Clarke or David Gauke are or care much that they have left the party, but their constituents might. If, when the inevitable election comes, the exiled rebels run as independents and split the vote, a whole lot of Conservative “safe seats” will start to look a lot less safe. Factor in losses in Scotland after the departure of the widely popular Ruth Davidson and the wildcard of the Brexit Party (which cannot be relied upon to play fair, electoral pact or no electoral pact), and it’s clear that Boris Johnson has his work cut out for him.

Sending poultry products to lobby journalists as a tortured metaphor for Jeremy Corbyn’s “chicken” attitude to an election isn’t going to cut it. Because when the country does get to vote again, only two things really matter. It won’t be Phillip Lee crossing the floor live on air to join the Liberal Democrats, Jacob Rees-Mogg reclining like a Roman at a dinner party, or an inconsequential amendment passing by accident because the Tories forgot to provide vote counters. All that will count is the big-picture narrative.

Can Boris, who has threatened to break the law for the cause, be trusted as the one true champion  to deliver Brexit come what may? And if he can, does Brexit sentiment across the country run as deep as Downing Street hopes it does?  That’s the hidden reality beneath the Magic Eye facade. Everything else is just meaningless detail.