Meet Catherine. This imaginary voter is 48, with two children at secondary school, living in the well-heeled Surrey suburb of Esher. Catherine and her partner work in the City, commuting in on the train a few days a week. Crucially, she shops at the upmarket Waitrose store.
Catherine is blessed to be at the front of Boris Johnson’s mind. She is a socially liberal, “small c” conservative, preferring low taxes — her reliance on the state is limited. She voted to remain in the EU but accepted Brexit. She was a natural Tory, but has floated off to the Liberal Democrats.
She is “Waitrose Woman”, a class of commuter belt voter that the prime minister has told colleagues to win back to stave off electoral annihilation. In last month’s local elections, Lib Dem gains confirmed that southern middle classes are fed up: the partygate scandal adds to deeper angst about the government. They feel abandoned.
In his efforts to win over pro-Brexit voters in the north and midlands of England since the last election, Johnson adopted a strident tone that alienates the Tories’ more traditional base.
But the Tories do have ways to woo Waitrose Woman. First would be putting meat on chancellor Rishi Sunak’s meek insistence that the party is still focused on low taxes. His pledge of a 1p cut in income tax in 2024 is remote and minimal. Sunak and Johnson are due to deliver a joint speech in the coming weeks; they should set out a detailed plan to chop the total tax burden.
Next the party should mollify its natural voters on cultural matters. The Tory base adore national institutions — BBC Radio 4, the National Trust and parliament among them. The rhetoric of some ministers suggests they want them all destroyed. Waitrose Woman is not opposed to reform, but the Conservatives need to emphasise conserving.
The public sector, meanwhile, needs a focus on improvement not simply growth. The easiest thing is to throw money at any problem; ministers should be pulling at the nuts and bolts of improving how the state functions. Whether it is the police, the NHS or the courts, Catherine wants Britain to work better.
The Tories also need to do much better in selling the Johnson government’s raison d’être: levelling up. The plan to tackle regional inequality in the north gets the attention, but some of the poorest parts of the land are in the south. There is a tale to be told about a moral mission to equalise opportunity everywhere.
The last part of winning back Waitrose Woman is a reshuffle. The cabinet is currently constituted to appeal to pro-Brexit voters at the expense of moderate MPs. It is no coincidence that most of those agitating against Johnson were spurned when he came to power. Allies say he now appreciates this.
A parlour game of fantasy cabinet shows how easy it would be to achieve gender equality. The role of the independent Teals in bringing down the Australian centre right is a warning to Johnson to improve his standing with affluent female voters. Junior ministers such as Gillian Keegan, Penny Mordaunt, Lucy Frazer, Kemi Badenoch and Victoria Atkins should be promoted to achieve parity.
A refreshed government line-up could also mark the return of the Remainers — who tend to look and sound like the southern middle classes — without reducing the quota of Brexiters. Jeremy Hunt, former foreign secretary, may be agitating for the Tory leadership but Johnson should be magnanimous and offer him a return to, say, the Cabinet Office. Julian Smith could return to the Northern Ireland brief.
If Johnson does faces a confidence vote in his leadership this month, he should not take victory as vindication. The ideas and the talent are available within Tory ranks to reboot a drifting government. This moment of acute political danger is the time to enact some serious, much-needed change.