After two weeks of tireless bad news and self-inflicted mistakes, Boris Johnson looks like a man in need of a break. “He should rest this weekend – try to get some of his mood back,” said a Conservative MP, despairing over the events of the last fourteen days.
“Vaccine bounce” – a political dividend that Johnson earned from a successful Covid-19 rollout earlier this year – has worn away and recent polls have put his party neck and neck with Labor after months of significant leadership.
The Prime Minister – usually a bubbly figure – looks tired, his voice croaking. Tory MPs are desperate and accuse their leader of presiding over a “mess”, surrounding himself with “nodding dogs” and leading his party towards what could be a “sudden decline to defeat”.
But perhaps the most ominous moment for the British Prime Minister came during Question Time in the House of Commons on Wednesday, when stretches of empty green leather benches spoke to Tory MPs withholding their support.
Johnson’s confused handling of the parliamentary “sleaze” scandal was exacerbated when the Prime Minister’s promised rollout of high-speed trains to the Conservatives’ new northern heart areas was radically reduced.
The question nagging at Tory MPs after another difficult week is, whether Johnson, a proven one election winning machine, can turn things around and reunite its demoralized party.
It’s hard to find a Conservative MP who will defend Johnson’s handling of the controversy over parliamentary standards, which included the Prime Minister marching Tory MPs through voting lobbies to help a former minister who broke the rules by lobbying for private interests.
Johnson’s confession behind closed doors that he had “crashed the car” could have been admirably honest, but many conservatives wonder how the accident happened in the first place.
A senior party member said Johnson needed to expand his circle of advisers and take more account of parliamentary and cabinet colleagues. “You need ministers who are ready for the job,” said a senior Tory MP. “Are they serious, or are they nodding dogs?”
Tory MPs have said the government center is too weak at the moment – Dan Rosenfield, chief of staff, and Simon Case, cabinet secretary, have failed to fend off recent political accumulations – and that the management’s political strategy is difficult to fathom.
Michael Gove, who was a firm hand in the Cabinet Office, now runs a department to “create levels”, while Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, whose relationship with Johnson is strained, is deployed in the Justice Department.
A veteran MP suggested that Alok Sharma, the former minister who won praise for his calm management of COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, could be deployed as Johnson’s fixer. “He’s a perfect foil for Boris,” the MP said.
Every week seems to bring new chaos. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps was furious when his long-awaited railroad plan was leaked to Sunday newspapers, four days before its formal announcement.
When Shapps stood at the shipping box to try to sell the package, the government had endured days of gloomy headlines, including coordinated front-page criticism from newspapers in the north of England.
Huw Merriman, Tory chairman of the Commons Transport Committee, reprimanded Johnson: “This is the danger of selling perpetual sunlight and then leaving it to others to explain the arrival of the moonlight.”
Many Tory MPs fear that Johnson’s ability to escape his current predicament is limited by the fact that inconvenient facts are catching up with his booster rhetoric. “Reality is biting,” one said.
Johnson’s ability to use its way out of trouble, for example by building new high-speed train lines, is limited by the fact that the UK is heading towards its highest tax burden since 1950, and rising interest rates could begin to penalize high levels of borrowing.
Brexit is already taking its economic toll. The Office of Budgetary Responsibility, the official forecasting body, maintains its prediction of a long-term hit on the economy of 4 percent, equivalent to about 100 billion. pounds per year of lost national income.
And the country is facing some tough months where inflation is on the rise to over 5 percent and tax increases are threatening. “Winter is going to be awful,” said a Tory MP from a “red wallNorthern seat. “There will be an NHS crisis and a cost of living crisis.”
The prime minister will need all the friends he can get, except for his handling of the sleaze affair, which focuses on the lobbying activities of Owen Paterson, originally alienated MPs elected in 2019, most of whom have no other job.
When Johnson U-turned on his plan to change parliamentary standards, cut Paterson loose and called for a repression of other jobs, he annoyed older MPs in his party. His level of support in the party is shallow and there are few self-proclaimed “Johnsonites”.
But Johnson retains the grip of his party for one crucial reason: he wins elections. Many Tory MPs owe their seats to Johnson’s election appeal, and it is unlikely that Brexit would have happened or that the Tories would have twice won the London mayoral election without his star dust.
Anthony Wells, YouGov’s director of political opinion polls, said it was too early to write off Johnson, who is not the first prime minister to go through “midterm blues”.
Wells believes many people, perhaps erroneously, jump to the conclusion that Johnson is in relentless decline. “There’s a bit of a sense that people are happy that Johnson’s making progress in the polls, that the political rules apply to him after all.”
But he also said that when Tory MPs finally decide that Johnson is no longer an asset, support can quickly run away. “What is the point of a politician who is only there because they are popular with the public if he is not popular with the public?”
Bim Afolami, an aide to Foreign Minister Liz Truss, was honest about the problems that could lie ahead. “The danger of this moment is that the Conservative government may be close to losing a very valuable thing – the benefit of the doubt,” he said.
Afolami wrote for ConservativeHome, a political news site, saying that unless the government raised its stakes, it could go the way of other long-running administrations: “A gradual and then sudden fall to defeat.”
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