DAN HODGES: Some Tory MPs are starting to think the unthinkable
DAN HODGES: Watch out Boris, some Tory MPs are starting to think the unthinkableBoris Johnson may face a growing headache from his own Conservative MPsThe impression among many is that Johnson is star
DAN HODGES: Watch out Boris, some Tory MPs are starting to think the unthinkable
- Boris Johnson may face a growing headache from his own Conservative MPs
- The impression among many is that Johnson is starting to lose his grip
- The government have been forced into several u-turns over the last week
I have already had two people come up to me today and separately say “I think Boris may have to go”,’ one Tory MP told me last week.
‘There’s no way you would have been hearing that even last month.’
It’s just one sign that some Conservative politicians are starting to think the unthinkable. In another exchange, a Minister said: ‘It’s all gone for a ball of chalk.’
Prime Minister Boris Johnson may be coming under pressure from Conservative MPs
It has. The own goal conceded when Marcus Rashford intervened over free school meals. Chaos over schools. Dither and drift over social distancing.
The impression among Conservative MPs is that the Prime Minister has lost his grip, and the Government has lost its way. And incredibly, less than a year into his premiership, some are starting to seriously consider whether Boris Johnson may have to be replaced.
‘It’s been difficult for people to get organised because everyone’s been scattered round the country,’ one MP explains. ‘But the conversations are taking place now. There’s a feeling the basic level of competence isn’t there in No 10.’
For some, the spectacle of the Premier League’s sixth deadliest striker sending Ministers back-pedalling crystallised the problem. No 10 were too slow to get ahead of an issue they had been aware of for over a month.
Manchester United and England striker Marcus Rashford forced the government into a u-turn
When it exploded across the airwaves, they weren’t sure whether to back Rashford’s call for a summer free-school meals extension, or oppose it. And when the U-turn finally came, it was undermined by confusion over whether Boris had even been aware of his campaign at all.
As one Minister complains: ‘What lay at the heart of all that was that no one trusts No 10 to hold the line on anything any more. No one’s going to go out and fight for a policy – even if it’s the right policy – because they think when the heat is on, they’ll fold.
Cummings is the only thing they’ve actually dug in over. Everyone and everything else is expendable.’
What’s also worrying Tory MPs is a suspicion that the mayhem of the past week may not be an aberration, but a return to normality. Boris’s stunning Election triumph has obscured the fact that retreats and confused and messy compromises were features of the early days of his administration.
As one Minister says: ‘Boris and Cummings are great at campaigning but rubbish at governing. They’re like one-club golfers. Everything has to be framed as part of the culture war.’
The controversy over senior adviser Dominic Cummings has also stoked division
Another believes there’s a problem with just how effective his inner circle are at keeping Boris up to speed with events and issues as they’re unfolding. ‘There are a number of times I’ve been in meetings with him and I’ve been surprised at the way he didn’t seem to have a feel for what was driving the agenda. Not so much a lack of a grasp of the detail, more the way an issue is playing out.’
A further problem is that the Government’s handling – or mishandling – of the ending of lockdown is alienating those within the Tory Party who would normally be supporters of Boris’s Churchillian tribute-act. ‘If you look at where a lot of the anger is coming from, it’s from the Right of the party,’ said one Minister. ‘Being seen to surrender to the teaching unions. Faffing around over going to 1m distancing. This is infuriating the sort of people Boris thought he could rely on.’
Some of this is just another emotional spasm from a party that long ago lost its ability to maintain a stiff upper lip in the face of adversity.
‘We’re not a happy Government,’ one Minister observed, ‘which is particularly disappointing given it comes so hard on the heels of Theresa’s unhappy Government.’
Despite continuing question marks over his health, it’s also clear Boris’s bout of coronavirus has not completely blunted his flair for political showmanship. On Wednesday he enjoyed the most effective PMQs performance since the Election, skilfully turning the tables on Sir Keir Starmer over Labour’s stance on reopening classrooms.
Despite ongoing health concerns, Johnson delivered an effective performance at PMQs
And as one senior Tory told me: ‘When coronavirus is under control, the main issue is going to be the economy. And Boris’s energy and enthusiasm could be just what’s needed to lift people’s spirits as we emerge from recession.’
But there is no doubt that if he is to get a grip of his skittish party, Boris is going to need to reassert himself. And to do that he needs to refocus on the issues that really matter. In particular, he should be concentrating on the following three key priorities: getting Britain out of lockdown, getting Britain out of lockdown, and getting Britain out of lockdown.
On Monday, Britain’s high streets reopened for the first time in three months. Boris chose to mark the moment by writing an article about statues.
When he and his Ministers should have been channelling all their energies into getting the nation back to work, he instead decided to spend a couple of hours in the House of Commons announcing the ‘merger’ of the Foreign Office and Department for International Development.
In the week when British scientists made the first major breakthrough in defeating Covid-19, No 10 thought this was the moment to announce they had spent £900,000 on painting a Union Jack on the Prime Minister’s plane.
The decision to announce a £900,000 repainting of the Prime Minister's plane was odd
As one senior Tory told me: ‘Experienced MPs from all wings of the party are worried about the No 10 bunker being out of touch. And blue collar and One Nation Tories are all worried by the lack of feel for bread-and-butter doorstep issues.’
They should be. There is no need for further review or prevarication on two metres.
The World Health Organisation says ‘it is important to stay at least one metre away from others’. Dropping the two-metre rule will open up the economy, open up the schools and open up Britain.
There’s only one doorstep issue that matters now – when we are all able to step across it and get on with our lives.
Boris also needs to remember precisely why he won the Election by such a landslide. It wasn’t because he sparked a culture war – but because he pledged to end one.
His promise to finally get Brexit done, and let Britain move forward again, was the wrecking ball that brought Labour’s vaunted red-wall crashing to the ground. I lost count of the times I heard that mantra repeated during the campaign.
Not a single person mentioned statues of a dead slavers, the shape of the Foreign Office letter-head or the colour of the RAF Voyager.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer will prove difficult opposition for Johnson going forward
And there’s one other thing Boris needs to remember. He is not facing Jeremy Corbyn any more. Labour’s culture and class warrior-in-chief is now merely a cautionary tale. Sir Keir Starmer had a bad day at the office on Wednesday, but in his short time as leader he has already shown himself to be an astute political operator.
And he will not charge into Dominic Cummings’s elephant traps with the same mindless vigour as his predecessor.
As one senior Tory said to me: ‘Starmer is a game-changer. Forget Covid. He’s going to be the thing that redefines how we do our politics.’
Boris has been written off many times before. Each time he has bested his critics, and come back stronger than ever.
And with the next Election more than four years away, it’s unlikely the current discontent will mutate into a full-blown leadership crisis.
But some Conservative MPs don’t think that necessarily means Boris is in it for the long haul.
‘He’s not a politician, he’s a brand,’ one Minister told me, ‘and one day he’ll just walk. People say Carrie [Symonds] will keep him in line. But you watch. He’ll just get up one morning and take the brand somewhere else.’
Maybe. But the Boris brand is still a powerful one. His party still needs it, and at a time of unprecedented crisis, his country still needs it.
Tory MPs are starting to think the unthinkable. He needs to make them think again.