In the old days, winning an election by a landslide meant trouble ahead. Clement Attlee won a 146-seat majority in 1945. Five years later, it was gone. His majority cut to five, he struggled on for another year and a half before going to the country again and losing to Winston Churchill.
Harold Macmillan seemed to usher in a permanent Conservative government when he won a majority of 100 in 1959. Four years later he was gone and the next year the Tories were out. Harold Wilson won a majority of 96 in his second election in 1966, but four years later, he too was out.
It was only for Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair that big majorities paved the way for long periods in office. So is Boris Johnson’s majority of 80 the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning? The answer to this question may be out of Johnson’s hands if there is a recession.
It was the long duration of postwar austerity that did for Attlee, and the stuttering economy disposed of Wilson as well. But if the post-Brexit economy runs into trouble, Johnson may be able to survive it, provided he can blame the EU and get the pain over quickly enough.
That is another reason Johnson is refusing to extend the Brexit transition period beyond the end of this year. I was struck by the words of an anonymous cabinet minister quoted by James Forsyth of The Spectator today: “If there are hiccups, it is better for them to happen in year one of a government, not year three.”
Hence, too, the hard negotiating line taken by David Frost, the prime minister’s EU negotiator. It seems Johnson is prepared to put up trade barriers between us and the EU, and if that causes us economic pain he can hope to recover from it by 2024. But if taking such a tough stance encourages the EU side to agree a deal that causes us (and them) less economic damage, so much the better.
Making yourself poorer is not a conventional negotiating strategy, but perhaps there is something by Suetonius that Johnson knows off by heart in Latin about confusing your opponent.
This is not, of course, Johnson’s only unconventional approach to statecraft. Going to war with the BBC and excluding selected journalists from government briefings does not seem a good way of trying to gain a sympathetic hearing when things turn difficult. Boycotting media outlets is the sort of thing the Labour Party does when it is losing.
It may seem trivial, and it probably is, but Johnson’s disappearing act this week might just be significant. A prime minister who regarded every vote that made up their 80-seat majority as on temporary loan might have been out and about in the wetter parts of the country, feeling people’s pain about their uninsurable and sodden possessions.
Perhaps Johnson is playing a cleverer game, calculating that if he came face to face with his people they might shout at him, which, as every politician knows, is usually unfair but makes for good TV. He and his minders might think that if people see too much of him they will get sick of him, and that the way to extend his shelf life is to ration his appearances, and preferably to be seen only on his own terms.
Perhaps he is learning the lesson of Gordon Brown who, when he finally became prime minister, complained that it was too late for him, because the voters were too familiar with him as chancellor for 10 years and he couldn’t convince them he was a fresh start. Johnson has, after all, been one of the best-known politicians in Britain since before he became mayor of London 12 years ago.
Perhaps Johnson takes the view that David Cameron and Tony Blair were too keen to get in front of a TV camera and insinuate themselves into any big news story. I am not sure that is the right analysis: what cut Cameron and Blair short was not overexposure, but decisions they took that went against them.
In which case, the question is not the size of Johnson’s majority, but what he decides to do with it. So far he has used it to go to war with the BBC, to get rid of his chancellor — for reasons that won’t become clear until the Budget on 11 March, if then — and to adopt the hardest possible negotiating stance over the trade with the EU.
This does not yet look like a strategy that will pave the way for a second term in four years’ time. Maybe politics has changed. Maybe the old rules don’t apply in the new age of populism. But Boris Johnson should not bank on it.