Why today’s Conservative Party resembles a frog with no brain

We shall come to Partygate, Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and the Conservative Party in a moment; but first, a question. Do we have a soul and, if so, where is it? 

In 1869, Friedrich Goltz, a German physiologist, wanted to find out. He conducted an experiment with two frogs. One had its brain removed, while the other was left intact. Both were placed in a large bowl of tepid water. Its temperature was gradually raised. When it reached 25C, the frog with a brain jumped out. The brainless frog stayed in the water. When the temperature reached 42C, it died. Yes, Goltz concluded, the soul does exist. It’s in the brain.

Today’s Conservative Party resembles the brainless frog. It has been suffering a series of escalating blows—by-election defeats, Partygate, the cost of living crisis, Johnson’s tangled relationship with the truth—yet declines to escape from the increasingly hot political water it inhabits. 

Every time it is suggested that the party might change its leader and find more benign water to swim in, we are told: “wait, until…” First, it was until the early fuss about Downing Street parties died down. Then, when it didn’t, we were advised to wait for Sue Gray’s report. When she published her interim conclusions, we were told to wait to see if the Metropolitan Police fined the prime minister. When they did, we were told to wait for the local elections. When the Tories did worse than expected, we were told to wait until Sue Gray’s final report. 

That has now been published, with its lurid details of vomiting and drunken fights. And all that has happened is that we are advised to wait for the next “until”—June’s by-elections in Wakefield and Tiverton & Honiton. If the Tories lose these, we shall doubtless be told that their defeats were disappointing but expected, and that we should wait for something else. Gradually, even as the political temperature has risen, events that would have been career-ending calamities just a few weeks earlier have become the new normal to which the party has decided to adjust.

Assuming that the prime minister does not face a confidence vote in the next few weeks—and none of us really know how many letters of no confidence have been sent to Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee—are Conservative MPs wise to keep Johnson as their leader? (Some commentators are debating their moral fibre: this analysis is about the electoral consequences of their stance.)

A curious polling coincidence helps us to consider the question. For more than 40 years, Ipsos Mori has been recording the ratings of our leading politicians. Its latest figures show that 28 per cent are satisfied with Johnson as prime minister, while 64 per cent are dissatisfied—a net rating of minus 36. These happen to be precisely the same as John Major’s scores in June 1995—which happened to be, like today, the month his leadership of his party was in question—and also, like today in all probability, two years before the following election.

Major survived the immediate crisis by provoking a vote among his MPs, which he won—but went on to lead his party to its worst general election defeat since 1906. So, if Tory MPs don’t want history to repeat itself, should they now seek a new leader?

A Johnson loyalist might draw on other figures from that 1995 poll to say things are different today. Then, the government’s ratings were far worse than today: just 14 per cent were satisfied then, compared with 26 per cent now. In 1995 Tony Blair enjoyed a far higher rating, plus 29, than Keir Starmer today, minus 17. And when Major fought for his leadership, Labour led the Tories by 27 points, a far cry from today’s six points. 

Taking these figures together, it was pretty clear by 1995 that enough voters had given up on the Tories, and had lost their fear of Labour, to ensure a change of government two years later. Although the personal figures are the same for Johnson today and Major then, all the other relevant figures are very different. This time, Labour has plainly not yet sealed the deal with the electorate.

And yet… Starmer’s ratings and Labour’s current narrow lead can be viewed another way. We are probably only just past the half-way point between Starmer’s election as party leader and the next election. He still has time to burnish his reputation and to persuade voters that the days of Jeremy Corbyn and left-wing extremism are truly over. Unlike in 1995, Labour’s support has room to grow. It may or may not do so, but Tories would be wise to fear that it might.

Two other cautionary points. The first is that Johnson has a specific problem that Major didn’t. He is widely thought to be a liar. Before Partygate, that perception was confined to those who had followed his career closely. It wasn’t much discussed in the Dog and Duck. Now it is. Only a supreme pro-Johnson optimist would imagine that the voters’ verdict will be any kinder two years from now.

Secondly, those who think that Sunak’s handouts this week will transform Tory fortunes should remember that in 1995, Britain’s economy was growing strongly. Inflation and unemployment were lower. Living standards were rising. The standard rate of income tax was cut by 1p in 1996 and by another 1p in the run-up to the 1997 election—to no avail. Painful memories of past failings, including the humiliation of Black Wednesday, persisted. Labour still won by a landslide. 

Will this week’s measures, with the promise of a single 1p cut in tax rates before the next election, turn the Tories’ fortunes this time? Or will galloping inflation and further rises in energy prices still cost the Tories votes they need? And will Johnson’s bad personal ratings continue to inhibit his party’s recovery? In short, is the Tory Party still a brain-dead frog?

Next month’s by-elections will tell us whether Sunak’s measures have started to turn the tide—or shown that even large cash handouts cannot remove the stain on the reputation of a government that is led by a prime minister whom the electorate simply doesn’t trust.

This blog was first published by Prospect