How Boris Johnson’s fortunes flipped in 2021 - and what it means for Labour in 2022

Credit: PA

In May, I travelled to Hartlepool to report on the by-election that would result in the Tories taking the seat for the first time since it was created in 1974, with a majority of almost 7,000.

Back then - at the peak of the vaccine rollout - Boris Johnson and his government were on a high - an average 9 points ahead of Labour in the polls. One of the issues that would come to haunt his premiership was already being discussed - who had paid for the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat.

But while headlines in some papers screamed of “sleaze”, the question of the wallpaper was not raised to me in Hartlepool - even once. 

One Wednesday, on the set of ITV's Peston programme, I remember discussing why that was with Labour MP Jon Cruddas.

He agreed that at that time, the same was true in his patch, Dagenham - no one seemed too bothered. 

But the thing we know about sleaze, he said, is that it chips away. No one cares, until suddenly one day, they do - and then it becomes a huge problem for government. 

He was right - although I’m going to choose two moments, rather than one, that shifted the dial for Johnson. 

The first was when he and others made the decision to back Owen Paterson - when the then Tory MP was accused of breaking parliamentary lobbying rules - by trying to overhaul the entire system for standards. Talk about opening a can of worms. 

The second was my colleague Paul Brand’s scoop - the video leaked to ITV News of advisers joking about a party in Downing Street - that suggested the country had been lied to. 

Watch the leaked video, obtained by ITV News, showing senior Downing Street staff joking about an event - days after it is alleged to have taken place

Just days before that was released -  even that morning - Conservative MPs told me they’d hardly had any correspondence about 'partygate' in their mailbags. But that video changed things. 

Traipsing around doorsteps in another by-election - this time in North Shropshire - I was suddenly hearing all about sleaze allegations - and not just parties but - as Cruddas had suggested - now people cared about the refurbishment too. 

But it wasn’t just those issues. Other frustrations were bubbling over too - many focused on the NHS like ambulances and GP appointments - with people far less willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt because of the pandemic.  

A week before the historic North Shropshire Tory by-election defeat, ITV News Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana scoped out the mood in Owen Paterson's former constituency

In just seven months, Johnson’s fortunes have flipped - from a strong Conservative winner able to overturn majorities in “red wall” seats held by Labour for generations, to a weakened prime minister who had just lost two massive majorities (Chesham and Amersham and North Shropshire) in what you might call the “blue wall” - traditional Tory heartlands.

He’s also faced (and facing) massive rebellions over Covid with newspaper briefings about some Cabinet members starting to feel like the rumblings of a future leadership contest

I’ve even heard ministers openly question if Johnson will lead the party into the next election.

And then there’s the polls - Johnson’s personal ratings have plummeted and on voting intention - now Labour have a 6 point lead.

And in a way that doubles the pain for the prime minister, because his downer has an exact opposite impact for Keir Starmer

Several shadow cabinet members told me that in recent weeks the Labour leader has a new confidence in the way he operates.  

Labour Leader Keir Starmer has grown in confidence in recent weeks, sources have said. Credit: PA

“This is the first time in 11 years it feels like Labour has a chance,” said one, arguing that hope, as well as the shadow cabinet reshuffle, has changed how everyone is behaving.

“Having new shadow cabinet members who are full of energy like Yvette Cooper and Wes Streeting has made all of us up our game.” 

Although many of the new faces are still quite unknown to voters, the shake up was about strengthening Labour’s position in areas Starmer thinks will be critical in the next election: the economy (and, of course, recovering from the pandemic), levelling up, law and order - with a focus on Labour’s message to “make Brexit work”.

Health and education will also clearly be key. 

As well as better polling, Labour is seeing better results in focus groups. 

Until recently, they admitted that the response to Starmer was often somewhat dismissive with - “we don’t know much about him" and "we don’t know what he stands for”. 

But at the most recent focus groups, Labour Party figures watched a woman lay into Johnson for 10 minutes. At the end, she turned to the question of Starmer and said that he looked and sounded good, saying she could see him as prime minister. 

They don’t think that’s a one off - they think the mood has shifted. 

The slogan - one rule for them and one for us - seems to be cutting through, and they feel that following the difficulties of Brexit, and Johnson’s “Peppa Pig” speech to the CBI, business is willing to give them a hearing.  

Labour is also watching the Lib Dems' success closely, not just because of the impressive campaigns that won the two by-elections, but because ultimately they know they need the Lib Dems to beat Tories in more traditional areas for Starmer to have a realistic path to power.

On the flipside, senior Lib Dems say that they find it easier to persuade Tories to give them a chance if Labour is led by someone they can imagine in Downing Street.

But for all the pain for the Tories and positivity within Labour right now, both sides know how quickly things can switch. 

“We seemed to get this poll lead out of nowhere and I worry it can evaporate just as quickly,” said one senior Labour source.

“It’s like a candy floss poll lead”. 

They said one concern was that Labour was benefiting from Johnson’s troubles and people turning on the PM but didn’t yet have a compelling positive story to tell. “We urgently need to build that.” 

Others agreed that 2021 had to be about Labour setting out its stall, and telling voters what it would do in government. 

Overall, both sides know that things are never as good or as bad as they feel in politics.

Labour’s 6 point lead is significantly smaller than Ed Miliband’s 11 point advantage in 2013, halfway through that parliament - and he went on to lose seats. 

As for the Tories, they know politics is changing too.

As we enter 2022, with the return of the pandemic, possible restrictions are likely to loom larger than sleaze.

To put that in blunt political terms - crises often favour incumbents.

And as for Johnson himself, things are really bad now and there are things that could do for him, but he’s been down many times and always found a way back up. 

Labour knows that well. 

“We’ve underestimated him before,” said a shadow cabinet minister. “We must not do it again.”