Rishi Sunak’s triumph in securing a new deal with Brussels on Brexit and Northern Ireland was supposed to signal a turning point for both the Government and the Conservative Party. Namely, that this was no longer the party of chaos, confusion, and infighting, but a competent, organised force able to get things done and govern effectively.
Then came “The Lockdown Files”.
The recent leak of thousands of WhatsApp messages to The Telegraph contains a whole host of embarrassment for the Conservatives, mostly centred around the Government’s handling of the Covid pandemic in 2020.
This makes an extra-large headache for the Tories. Not only are past and present senior members (including the former PM himself) seen to be struggling to get to grips with the Coronavirus outbreak, questioning the scientific advice, taking swipes at teachers, and falling out with each other, but the context brings back to the forefront a time of pain, anguish, and anger.
Just as Sunak launches his great turnaround operation, voters are presented with a rather dim view on the behaviour and decision making of senior government officials at a time when it mattered so much.
It is slowly re-opening old wounds among Conservatives around lockdowns and the various stages of their pandemic response. And with Boris Johnson playing such a major role in “The Lockdown Files”, the Partygate spectre is also back to feast.
But to what extent does Tory squabbling over instant messaging matter to voters? What will Brits make of the potential fallout, as ministers scramble to point the finger at one another for mistakes and missteps? Will it cause more problems for Sunak in the court of public opinion?
Only time will tell if there is a “lockdown files” penalty for the party in terms of voters. Negative news stories only tend to filter through to vote intention on the rare occasion that they cut through to dining table chats and in the homes of average voters, rather than media discussions.
But we do know one thing for sure: voters do not like divided parties.
From the experience of the Conservatives and the issue of Europe in the 1990s, to Douglas Alexander calling desperately for the party to unite behind then leader Ed Miliband in 2014, and the hammering handed out to both Labour and the Conservatives at the 2019 Local and European Parliament elections while they each wrestled internally and externally with the issue of Brexit, one message has been consistently clear: divided parties lose elections.
Why? Voters essentially view party unity as a proxy measurement for their readiness to govern. If a party cannot agree with itself, how can they be expected to form effective policies that will deal with the issues of the day? If a party spends all its time arguing, it has no minutes left in the day to listen to and consider voters concerns.
Right now, the public already view the Conservatives as deeply divided. According to our latest YouGov tracking data, no less than 66 per cent of the British public think the Conservative party is “divided at this present time”, versus just 10 per cent who think it is “united”.
Furthermore, 60 per cent feel that the Tories are “incompetent”, versus only 13 per cent who view them as “competent”. “The Lockdown Files” have the potential to make those figures even worse.
In contrast, only 34 per cent think the Labour party is divided, while 28 per cent think it is united. Similarly, 35 per cent think Labour are incompetent while 27 per cent think they are competent.
Many will make the point that much of the back and forth we see in the exchanges between Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock, and others in the WhatsApp messages is a natural part of the policy making process. That could be the case but in an already tough and unforgiving political environment for the Conservatives, the last thing Sunak needs is further reason for British people to disparage their ability to govern. Unfortunately for him, “The Lockdown Files” and the fallout from them may prove to be just that.
Patrick English is the Associate Director of Political and Social Research at YouGov