Tom Morrison, the Liberal Democrat candidate for the marginal Conservative seat of Cheadle, only realised this week’s Westminster sleaze crisis would be picked up by constituents when he was buttonholed by a former Tory voter in Aldi. “There was a real air of disappointment: ‘Why is he [Boris Johnson] doing this?’ And then he said: ‘It’s just not fair,’” Morrison says.
The Lib Dems, who came second to the Tories in 90 seats in December 2019, are targeting voters they call “soft Conservatives” who backed Johnson at the last general election but may have reservations about him now – not least because of the perception of sleaze.
Canvassers in Chesham and Amersham, where the Lib Dems overturned a 16,000 majority to take the seat in June, also said they heard repeatedly from former Tory voters who felt let down by Johnson’s government.
It is a fear of this cut-through to voters that will be causing jitters among ministers, and which helped contribute to a screeching U-turn after a 48-hour shambles over lobbying this week.
“There’s almost a drumbeat of sleaze that’s happening all the time now, and that’s why it’s cutting through,” said Morrison. “I think previously people have voted Conservative because there’s a sense of responsibility, and this just flies in the face of that – and that’s what really disappoints people.”
Johnson’s kamikaze attempt to protect the longstanding MP Owen Paterson from a 30-day suspension after he was found by the independent sleaze watchdog to have lobbied on behalf of two companies, was the latest example of this government pushing the boundaries of probity.
But the boldness of the move – with the Conservatives whipping their MPs to protect a colleague who was paid more than £100,000 a year and had approached ministers and officials more than a dozen times, underlined a view in No 10 that voters barely notice such issues.
But the opposition parties certainly noticed. The Lib Dems highlight Conservative MPs in their target seats, including Steve Brine in Winchester, Alex Chalk in Cheltenham and Bim Afolami in Hitchin and Harpenden, who voted for the amendment to save Paterson on Wednesday.
Both they and Labour believe Johnson’s amorality is a chink in the government’s armour that they hope to exploit. Certainly the latest YouGov poll, carried out after the Paterson debacle, showed the Conservatives’ lead fall to just one point – 36% to Labour’s 35%.
Elections experts say it is also important to watch the “don’t knows”. Many may have voted Conservative in 2019 and have concerns about the Johnson regime, but have not yet alighted on an alternative.
Keir Starmer’s noticeably punchier approach this week – calling Johnson’s behaviour “corrupt” and accusing him of “leading his troops through the sewer” – reflected Labour’s belief that voters are beginning to notice a pattern of behaviour.
The Labour leader laid a heavy focus on questions over the financing of Johnson’s No 10 flat during the disastrous Hartlepool byelection campaign in May, which Labour lost, with analysts subsequently raising questions about whether sleaze matters at the ballot box. But Hartlepool’s new MP, Jill Mortimer, was among the 13 Conservatives who defied a vigorous whipping operation to vote against the save-Paterson amendment on Wednesday.
Paula Surridge, an elections expert and deputy director of the UK in a Changing Europe thinktank, points to some evidence that new Conservative voters – those who backed Labour in 2015 but supported Johnson in 2019 – are more concerned about issues of fairness and corruption than longtime Tory voters.
When asked in the British Election Study whether they agreed that “there is one law for the rich and one for the poor”, for example, 48% of loyal Conservative voters agreed, compared with 76% of Labour-to-Conservative switchers. Similarly, 26% of loyal Conservatives disagreed against just 9% of “new” Conservatives.
After the parliamentary battles of the Brexit process, Johnson was able to paint himself as being on the side of the leave-voting public against the Westminster elite – making the point visually during the December 2019 election by literally driving a bulldozer through a wall of polystyrene bricks.
Surridge says: “For the Conservatives, a concern must be that being seen by voters as protecting those with wealth and power could undermine the connection with their new voters. While currently the Labour party seems to struggle to capitalise on this, there is a danger of voters tuning out and staying home. In close contests, who votes might be the difference between winning and losing.”
The Lib Dems believe Rishi Sunak’s tax-raising budgets will also play badly with potential Tory switchers. Recent internal polling showed 61% of 2019 Conservative voters think Sunak will raise their taxes.
Johnson faces a series of tests in the coming weeks with byelections looming not just in Paterson’s seat of North Shropshire, but in Old Bexley and Sidcup after the death of James Brokenshire, and also Southend West – though the latter will not be contested, out of respect for David Amess, who was killed last month.
Both Paterson’s and Brokenshire’s seats are regarded as super-safe – but Chesham and Amersham was also seen as an impossible target before the Lib Dems took it in June.
One senior Tory who knows Johnson well says sleaze will not dent the prime minister’s popularity until it does. “I think it is a key risk for him,” he said. “At some stage, there could be a scandal that totally undoes him – and all these things that have gone before, Barnard Castle, the flat, this – builds up into a rich tapestry in people’s minds.”