Just days after overseeing Scott Morrison’s doomed re-election campaign, Isaac Levido, the political strategist who, more happily, ran Boris Johnson’s 2019 campaign, flew back from Australia to join a high-level Tory meeting on how to win the next contest. Conservatives would do well to absorb his insights into last weekend’s Liberal party defeat.
The campaign has a particular resonance for Tories, given political similarities between Johnson and Morrison as well as the British leader’s long reliance on Australian campaign strategists. And like the beaten premier, Johnson’s character has made him a drag on his party’s vote.
A health warning is needed, however. International campaign comparisons are often specious. In Australia, climate change was the dominant dividing issue. The preferential voting system aids smaller parties and key to the result was the emergence of a new force, the “teal” independents, a well-funded group of conservative greens led by professional women alienated by Morrison. Elizabeth Ames, a former Australian diplomat now COO of Atalanta, a firm focused on female leadership, flags Morrison’s loss of female voters and the need to “take professional women seriously as a voting cohort”. Ironically, this is one gender gap Johnson has successfully closed. For now, polls show him as unpopular with men as with women.
Yet both Tory and Labour MPs are paying attention, not least because Australian campaign techniques have long influenced British contests.
The first lesson is that divisive “wedge” tactics, negative attacks over security, crime and immigration amplified by the Murdoch press, could not save a party deemed to be failing on the big issues. If anything, it helped alienate affluent suburban voters.
The obvious portent is for the future of about 40 suburban, affluent, graduate-heavy and largely Remain-voting “blue wall” Tory seats where voters are increasingly alienated by Johnson. Some party strategists worry that the post-Brexit realignment was only half completed in 2019, because fear of the then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn saved a number of seats where the demographics are shifting against the Tories. With a less threatening opposition leader, voters may feel safe switching to the Liberal Democrats or Labour.
For the past two elections the Tories broadened their electoral coalition and increased their vote. Yet southern MPs see blue wall voters estranged by the constant emphasis on the recently won northern Labour “red wall” seats, wedge tactics on social policy and the routine disparagement of those who look to London. They also feel neglected. Aside from the cost of living crisis, focus groups in these seats cite housing and childcare costs as problems the Tories are not answering. Johnson cannot keep power by holding the red wall but losing the blue. An outright Labour win is hard to see, but a hung parliament which leads to electoral reform is more frightening for Tories.
While the UK does not share Australia’s sharp divisions over net zero policies, senior Tories see its electoral relevance where “values signals” — the indication that a side shares voters’ priorities and has a desirable vision for the future — are concerned. In a nation beset by wildfires and floods, the signal was about the climate challenge, but in the UK it will be over the economy and public services.
In 2019 Johnson offered a positive vision of a reimagined economy and investment in public services. This time he will be judged on faltering delivery and inflation, albeit caused by the pandemic and war in Ukraine.
He is further hindered by internal divisions over economic strategy. Even as the national mood has swung towards a more active state, a core of Tory MPs and ministers want lower taxes and the spending cuts they see as a political virtue. Yet Johnson’s looming retreat on a windfall tax on energy companies to fund support for the poorest is a sign he fears Labour opening a values gap on the cost of living.
Beyond the dominant issue of the cost of living crisis, voters feel things are sliding. Real wages have flatlined for a decade. The NHS is struggling. Lengthening ambulance waiting times are cited on doorsteps. Above all, many British voters are repelled by Johnson’s conduct in office.
The lessons here are not only for the Tories. Labour’s Keir Starmer might draw hope from the victorious safety first campaign run by the uncharismatic Australian Labor leader Anthony Albanese. But the latter saw his party’s primary vote fall. John McTernan, a strategist for both Tony Blair and former Australian premier Julia Gillard, fears the election might convince Starmer to choose caution over a bolder value-driven vision: “I am terrified Labour will look at this and think the answer is to be a small target.”
For all the false parallels, Tories should heed the lessons of Morrison’s defeat. They need to find that elusive economic value signal. More urgently, Johnson needs to grasp that you cannot indefinitely neglect or disparage a key part of your electoral coalition without paying a price.
Against weak opposition, unaided by a preferential voting system, Johnson may hang on next time. But Tories should know that he, like Morrison, is marching his party towards its own demographic day of reckoning.