Why Boris Johnson keeps getting stronger despite his mistakes


Whether the Corona crisis or Brexit: The British government is actually supplying the opposition with plenty of ammunition. Nevertheless, Boris Johnson’s party is clearly ahead. How can that be?

Around 150,000 corona deaths, a debate about police violence and a sharp slump in exports after Brexit: there are enough points of attack in Great Britain for the opposition to criticize the government.

And at least once a week Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labor Party, is sure to get the attention: every Wednesday, punctually at lunchtime, the opposition leader has six questions for Boris Johnson during the “Prime Minister’s Questions” – broadcast live by the major news channels.

Johnson’s Tory party is eight to ten points ahead of Labor

Mostly carefully equipped with statistics, the 58-year-old Starmer has been trying week after week for a year to attack the prime minister and expose wrong decisions. But if you look at the polls, most attacks seem to roll off like raindrops from an umbrella. The Conservative Tory Party is currently eight to ten points ahead of Labor in opinion polls. The lead is still increasing.

At the latest since the success of the British vaccination campaign became apparent in February and the corona situation relaxed significantly, the gap has widened. “The government was lucky that its success came in the late stages of the pandemic,” says King’s College London policy expert Nigel Fletcher. “The concern for Labor is that this is the picture that remains.”

One year after taking office as party leader on April 4, 2020, Starmer has already seen the first ups and downs: In autumn and winter, things looked even better for him. The Labor leader and his party drove Johnson in front of them and called for tougher corona measures, which were first rejected by the government and then implemented in almost exactly the same way a few weeks later.

Johnson reaps the credit for success in the fight against Corona

In November Labor even overtook the Tories in the polls. Many would rather have the level-headed Starmer as prime minister. But the mood has turned. Currently, a proud Johnson is touring the country’s vaccination centers almost weekly, announcing new milestones in the fight against the virus and defending a “cautious but irrevocable” route out of lockdown.

“Labor has a really tough job right now,” says Tim Durrant of the Institute for Government think tank. “Right now people don’t want great political disputes. They want solutions to the crisis.” Starmer, whose first year falls entirely in the time of crisis management, announced “constructive opposition” right from the start. So far, so constructive – but it is difficult to gain a profile this way.

In the 2019 general election, Labor – at that time still under the old-left Jeremy Corbyn – had its worst result in decades. An unclear position on Brexit and anti-Semitism allegations cost votes. Since the change at the top, such allegations have moved into the background. “Starmer has been very successful in getting Labor back into mainstream politics,” notes Fletcher. Many expected it to take longer.

Labor does not want to open any “old wounds” with Brexit

It is still unclear what Brexit will actually mean for the United Kingdom in the next few years. But Labor does not want to open this barrel again, also because the party lost many seats, especially in the classic working-class regions in the north of England – known as the “Red Wall”. Approval for Brexit is particularly pronounced there. “You can’t win by opening old wounds,” says Durrant.

But a clear vision of what Britain could look like under a Labor government has so far been lacking. Starmer, a former Crown Prosecution Service chief prosecutor, is not a man of castles in the air or sweeping gags. He wants to convince with expertise and arguments – which is why the prime minister keeps stealing the show from him.

Johnson knows how to attract people who normally did not vote conservatively, says Fletcher. “You can look as good as you want as the opposition. If the government is popular, you can’t change that.” The next regular election is in 2024.

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