PartyGate has been dogging the Prime Minister for almost five months. Boris Johnson has tried multiple tactics: first, denying the existence of any parties; second, denying his attendance at any parties; third, explaining that, yes, there were parties, yes, he attended, but he didn’t know they were parties. Tory ministers have used the war in Ukraine as a reason to bury PartyGate. But Britain has changed prime minister during ten different wars that it was actually fighting. In fact, voters are more concerned about the cost of living crisis, and for the Conservatives to retain support they must respond to this. Professor John Curtice reports that at the peak of the scandal in February, three-fifths of voters thought that Johnson should resign; now, only half do. The pollster YouGov finds that 58 per cent of voters currently care most about the economy. That’s up from 40 per cent in September 2021 and only 24 per cent in November 2019. Households will be £900 worse off than last year. Inflation is expected to hit around 8.5 per cent this year, precipitating a 2 per cent drop in household incomes.
Yet Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced sizeable tax rises for this month; the National Insurance (NI) rate has been increased by 1.25 percentage points. Between two-thirds and four-fifths said it was an inadequate response to the cost of living crisis.
That said, the threshold for paying NI will rise from £9,568 to £12,570 in July. The government has also offered a repayable £200 discount on energy bills for Britons in October. And some council tax payers will be eligible for a £150 rebate on bills.
Yet people remain anxious. Last month, fully 83 per cent of Britons reported an increase in their cost of living. In a recent study conducted by University College London, all age groups reported increased concerns about their finances, but the figure was nearly 50 per cent of those aged 30 to 59. That should worry the Conservative Party. Savanta ComRes found that 27 per cent cited the Tories as the party of high taxation.
PartyGate and other Westminster scandals can generate airwaves, but long-term dissatisfaction matters. As Bill Clinton’s adviser James Carville famously put it: “it’s the economy, stupid”. A better strategy to bury the coffin of PartyGate would be to make response to the cost of living and energy crisis a priority across government departments. The sharpest drop in living standards since records began deserves full media and government attention.