It was in the function room of a hotel in Walsall that I had the epiphany. A focus group had been convened to talk about an especially dry policy area. But these Black Country tyre fitters, care workers and benefit claimants only wanted to talk about one thing when it came to politics – the fact that Boris Johnson had been spotted a few weeks previously pulling pints in the Wetherspoons in Bloxwich.
They rhapsodised about how he had mixed it in a place that is gritty even by local standards. No one at the focus group, all of them Labour voters in the past, even minded that the pint that Johnson had pulled was of “Thatcher’s Gold” cider.
Very few politicians have the ability to cheer people up. Even fewer English ones can reach across the cavernous divide of class to do that. Donald Trump made people angry and resentful but Ronald Reagan told them it was morning in America. Part of Johnson’s appeal to the Tories always was that he was the Heineken candidate. Many, including me, were not convinced and we wondered if he would have much appeal north of Coventry. That night in Walsall in April 2019 proved to me that his particular fizz could go down as well in a West Midlands ‘Spoons as it had among vaguely-progressive economic and social liberals in London.
All of this will make him an ever more formidable politician this year. My firm, Public First, did a mammoth poll and set of focus groups on mental health for the Sunday Times in February. We found a country and society that had suffered enormously over the last year. Some 15 per cent of people said a family member or close friend had died of the virus. Young people reported losing touch with friends and sinking into isolation. Single people and women have also found lockdown especially hard going. But the rules are now being relaxed and a very large part of the country is in the mood for a party. God knows young people, especially, deserve one.
I have no reason to doubt that Johnson’s own experience of having Covid has convinced him that obesity is a real problem about which something needs to be done. But I also suspect that this is about as far as anti-fun instincts have penetrated. The Prime Minister struggled to present himself as the frontman for a set of restrictions almost as heavy as during the Second World War. As we emerge from the grimness of the last year and the last three months especially, his natural personality and disposition should be on show. Put simply, Merrie England is coming home and we have one of its most committed exponents in Number 10 to lead the country into a summer of local fetes, outdoor drinking and general fun. The national mood is set for a general fillip and the Prime Minister’s ability to cheer people of all backgrounds up will be both a reflection and a catalyst of this. Woe betide any campaigner who plans to use the next few months to plead for a crackdown on the people’s pleasures. The overwhelming majority of us were willing to put up with the squalid restrictions of lockdown because we knew it would save lives and it was fair. But once it has gone, we no longer want to be told what to do.
All of this creates a problem for Keir Starmer. Labour once had its own cast of cheery characters, like John Prescott or even George Brown. But the opposition front bench is now a collection of glum-buckets. It has many talents but it is not easy to imagine many of them sharing a rib-tickler as they pass the ketchup at a barbecue. If English politicians can really be judged by which side they would have wanted their ancestors to have been on at the Battle of Marston Moor, then few people are going to suggest that Starmer would have preferred his to have been in flowing locks alongside the Cavaliers. He is one of life’s Roundheads – solid, reliable and no doubt competent – though unarguably much better than the Ranters and Levellers who for a while seized control of Labour.
Starmer’s plan seems to have been to ride out the pandemic – sensibly – and then press home his attack. The public has simply not been interested in partisan politics for the last year. But he might now find that the mood which comes after the pandemic is not one where the public wants recriminations. Starmer’s struggle to define himself and what the Labour Party is actually now all about will continue into the autumn. The mutterings on the left will spread further into the rest of the Party, as there is some evidence they already have. In the bar of Wetherspoons’ Bloxwich Showman, the crowd will gather around only one politician, while another sits alone and nurses his half of bitter.
Gabriel Milland is a Partner at research and communications consultancy Public First.