WHAT is the real political mood in the UK? Christmas might prove a welcome diversion but the sudden return of the pandemic in the shape of Omicron suggests otherwise. The economy is stuttering, with skyrocketing energy bills and the return (after a whole generation) of the spectre of inflation eating into living standards. New Year 2022 suddenly looks less inviting even if Russell T Davies is coming back to Doctor Who.

On Thursday, we will get an inkling of the way the political wind is blowing. This comes in the shape of a by-election in the Old Bexley and Sidcup constituency in Kent, which follows the death of sitting Tory MP James Brokenshire.

The Conservative majority is just shy of 19,000 so don’t expect any major upset. The real test is how well the Tory vote holds up. If it slides significantly then Conservative backbenchers will begin to plot against Boris. The same will be true for the by-election in North Shropshire on December 16 to replace the disgraced Owen Paterson.

But does the English electorate care sufficiently about the state of things? Or are people fed up with politics and politicians to the point they no longer think anything much will change, no matter how the vote goes? After all, the early pandemic saw the UK Government blow away billions in questionable contracts to friends and cronies of ministers – and absolutely nobody was fired or sacked.

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Or take Priti Patel, the worst (and most bombastic) Home Secretary in decades – and that’s saying something. She promised to end the influx of boat people only to let 25,000 arrive. Personally, I’d welcome them on the beaches with champagne and a warm blanket. But Patel – a former corporate lobbyist and daughter of immigrants – is still making a career out of stoking the fires of anti-immigrant and anti-French racism despite patently failing to deliver on her nasty rhetoric. Have voters noticed?

Promise after promise – and included here are some big ones – has been reneged on shamelessly by the Johnson government. Not fiddly promises on the political margins. The pension triple lock was dumped. A Tory administration that persuaded folk Corbyn’s Labour would steal their wallets has now raised taxes to the highest level in – wait for it – 70 years. Plans for HS2 have been ripped up with reckless abandon – and will be again.

Even the right-wing libertarians are getting worried by the gyrations, incompetence and patent lies of this allegedly Conservative government. Even Fraser Nelson, Scottish-born editor of The Spectator (the intellectual house magazine of the right), opined this week that he was having second thoughts about voting for Brexit. Not because he has had a sudden conversion to Europe but because he is outraged that the Johnson administration has defaulted on its grandiose promises to pursue a new free-trade foreign policy driven by British self-interest.

Instead, according to an irate Nelson, we have seen the rise of a Little England banana republic run by the court of Boris and his inner circle of cronies. I always disagreed with The Spectator’s utopian nonsense of a return to 19th-century free trade and a revival of independent British influence in the world.

But at least it contained a vision of something bold (behind the desire to exploit the hell out of the rest of the planet). No wonder The Spectator editor is in despair at the antics of the Johnson clique and its shoddy pre-occupation with doing anything and saying anything to cling to power. So why don’t the electorate rebel? After all, they are the ones being screwed royally by the Johnson clique. Example: let inflation rip at 5%per annum for even a couple of years and your income will be slashed significantly.

There’s worse to come. Eventually the supine governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey, will stop kowtowing to the Chancellor and raise interest rates to stop City banks losing money. But that will only add to inflation and cut living standards even further.

WILL the electoral worm finally turn in Old Bexley and Sidcup on Thursday? The latest Politico poll of polls had the Tories and Labour neck and neck at 37% each. That means the Conservatives have dropped six points since March. Yet that is hardly significant given their catastrophic performance over the year.

Meanwhile, Labour have gained only five points since the summer – hardly an electoral vote of confidence. Clearly, Sir Keir Starmer’s lack of charisma and common touch are holding Labour back. Equally, English voters at any rate don’t seem ready to swop Boris for Sir Keir, no matter how incompetently the Old Etonian performs.

My hunch is that Boris can’t keep doing his political Indian rope trick forever. There must come a point where the toxic mix of falling real living standards, sky-high taxes, rampant corruption and Boris’s increasingly irritating insouciance turn off the voters.

Or perhaps more accurately, there must come a point when enough Conservative MPs start worrying about their seats to consider treason. After all, they turfed out the sainted Margaret Thatcher in similar circumstances – and Boris is no Maggie.

Old Bexley and Sidcup on Thursday and next week’s North Shropshire by-election will provide straws in the political wind. If Tory voters stay loyal (at least for Christmas) then Boris is probably home and dry till the spring. Even then, this winter is full of potential pitfalls. A resurgence of Covid – especially if badly handled – could give Labour an opportunity to put the boot in (though I suspect the comrades will soon be diverted by their own renewed leadership battle). And the economy remains a disaster waiting to happen.

In Scotland, I detect the same political ennui among the electorate. The First Minister remains unassailable for now, while the SNP vote share has hardly moved this year. But such political stasis could mask potential voter disenchantment.

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The SNP are not immune to electoral discontent at falling living standards. The FM’s perceived pre-occupations with liberal and identity issues might prove a weakness if any of the opposition parties were ever able to make the economy the central electoral question.

The SNP have a “get out of jail card” in being able to ratchet up calls for Scottish independence as the preferred solution to the incompetence of the Johnson government in London. However, the FM has been singularly unwilling to play the independence card during the pandemic. Her risk-averse commitment to staying within UK constitutional conventions limits her ability to appeal to nationalist populism as the antidote to Tory sleaze and economic disaster.

So far, nobody senior in the SNP ranks has been willing to challenge Sturgeon’s dogged constitutionalism. That is unlikely to change unless the party suffers a fall in popular support. We won’t be able to gauge that till next year’s council elections. Even then, if the Tories remain in trouble, the SNP could hold their own next May despite the party’s indifferent managerial performance in Scotland’s town halls.

This Thursday, political commentary makes way for the test of the ballot box. For one day, the voters of Old Bexley and Sidcup will hold the fate of Boris Johnson in their hands.