A ‘one rule for us, another for them’ narrative is as damaging as sleaze – Labour should remember that

Over the weekend that followed the Owen Paterson row, the polls turned dramatically against the government. But was it really this story that changed ordinary people’s minds?

Ed Dorrell
Wednesday 17 November 2021 12:00
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Geoffrey Cox ‘does not believe’ he breached rules by using MP office for legal work

Are we at the turning point? Could November 2021 represent the moment – finally – when the prime minister’s seemingly impregnable polling lead proves, well, pregnable?

It has certainly felt that way in the last few days. Following a tsunami of sleaze headlines, the polling narrative appears to have shifted. Boris Johnson’s neverending advantage is finally overturned: Labour is on top.

Has Owen Paterson achieved what no Labour strategist could? Has the government’s eye-wateringly ham-fisted mismanagement of the Paterson scandal and its parliamentary aftermath turned Keir Starmer into a prime minister-in-waiting?

Many Labour supporters with memories long enough to remember the dog days of the mid-90s, when it felt as if it was impossible to open a newspaper without finding another story about a dodgy Conservative and a brown envelope stuffed with foreign currency, are likely to think so. What we need to do, they might decide, is to relentlessly push the idea of Tory sleaze.

If this is what Starmer and his team conclude, then I suspect they’d be slightly right, but mainly they’d be wrong. I suspect they would have missed the most important lesson of the last few days.

In focus groups in the red wall at the start of last week, in the immediate after-burn of the full Paterson horror show, I found the story had largely failed to fully cut through. And for those who were aware of it, it wasn’t a party political issue: the line you heard over and again was: “They’re all as bad as each other.”

And yet over the weekend that followed the polls turned dramatically against the government. So what happened in the intervening days? What changed?

I have a feeling that the answer is that the shift wasn’t about Paterson; it was about Geoffrey Cox.

I’ve not had a chance to test this in focus groups yet, but I have a strong suspicion that it was a sense of injustice that has made normal people look again at Labour. The idea that the baritone QC spent the winter lockdown working in the Bahamas while the rest of us endured one of the grimmest winters in this country’s long history will have played incredibly badly with people flicking absentmindedly to the news at 10.

It is worth remembering that for many – probably the majority – it wasn’t the fact that he was having an affair that did for Matt Hancock’s career, it was that he ignored social distancing to do so. The shock of that grainy footage from the spycam wasn’t so much in the fact that he was doing the dirty, it was that he was breaking his own rules with his sordid embrace. That was what came through in opinion research – and what probably, ultimately, forced Hancock to resign.

Afterall, a sense of fair play is one of the values closest to the hearts of most Britons. They also don’t like being taken for a ride.

This is one of the reasons that my colleague James Frayne has written convincingly about the need for frontline politicians to swap their “Chelsea tractors” in favour of electric vehicles if they are to successfully argue the case for the sacrifices the public will need to make to achieve net zero emissions.

A “one rule for us, another for them” narrative is as damaging as sleaze – and probably more so. If I were one of Starmer’s strategists, these are the stories I’d be praying for. These are the stories that could make the seemingly unbeatable Boris Johnson distinctly beatable.

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