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16 December 2021

David Gauke

Why Boris Johnson’s Tory foes may soon look more foolish than he does

The real question is not whether the Prime Minister is overreacting to the Omicron variant but whether he is underreacting.

A month ago – after the Owen Paterson fiasco – I wrote that, for all his flaws, the likelihood is that the Conservative Party will stick with Boris Johnson.

Since then, we have had a succession of stories about rule-breaking parties in Downing Street, concerns raised about the veracity of the Prime Minister’s evidence to Lord Geidt’s investigation into the funding of the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat, and a rebellion by a third of the Tory parliamentary party over Covid restrictions. Today’s North Shropshire by-election is unlikely to provide Johnson much respite.

I confess that I am less confident in my prediction that he will lead the Conservatives into the next election than I was. Conservative MPs are genuinely furious with their leader and now question whether he remains a vote-winner. As being a vote-winner was the one positive attribute he was widely perceived as having, this is a serious problem for him.

But before we write Johnson’s political obituaries and assume that the return of parliament in the new year will see a successful attempt to remove him, it is worth looking at the short-term threats.

First, Lord Geidt has to decide if he has been misled by Johnson. If he concludes that he has been misled, he has to decide what to do about it.  His resignation as the Prime Minister’s ethics adviser or a new report accusing Johnson of providing misleading information would be destabilising to Johnson. In those circumstances, the Chairman of the 1922 Committee should expect to receive a letter from every Conservative MP with integrity calling for a no-confidence vote. There might be more than 54 of them.

Second, the issue of the Downing Street parties continues to cause embarrassment. The cabinet secretary, Simon Case, is investigating and has the task of writing a report that looks sufficiently robust to put the story to bed whilst also exonerating the Prime Minister. A stretching target but this should be achievable if the public’s attention has moved on because of an even bigger story.

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Omicron is that bigger story and the Prime Minister’s response is the third issue causing him a problem. Here, as I argued last week, he has lost the moral authority to do the job but deserves some credit for taking action when the instinct of many of his parliamentary colleagues is to do nothing and hope for the best. 

There are some legitimate criticisms to be made of the government’s Covid certification policy. If we want to get the unvaccinated jabbed, we should have proper vaccine passports. If we want to keep the infected away from large events we should insist on negative lateral flow tests. Allowing a choice means neither objective is properly met.

The fundamental complaint of most of the rebels, however, is that the government is overreacting.  They point to evidence from South Africa that suggests that Omicron is less severe than Delta and argue that we should wait and see.

It is possible that they are right. But the evidence of reduced severity is uncertain whereas the evidence of increased transmissibility is very clear. We cannot assume that reduced severity will counteract increased transmissibility when it comes to hospitalisations and deaths. This means we should act quickly to reduce transmission, even on imperfect information.

Even if we do, It is plausible that the NHS will be under greater pressure than at any point in the pandemic as a succession of scientists have warned us.

This will be an enormously challenging set of circumstances for the government but – and forgive me for viewing this in political terms – it will ease the pressure on the Prime Minister from his backbenchers on this issue.  

The country will be in crisis and that is not a good time for a coup (even against a Prime Minister woefully ill-equipped to handle a crisis). More fundamentally, the argument of his Covid critics will have collapsed.

A little over a year ago, when cases rose as the Kent/Alpha variant began to circulate, the government put in place a number of restrictions.  This provoked an outcry from Conservative MPs.  Steve Baker called the measures “authoritarian” and Graham Brady accused the government of being “heavy-handed”.  It was soon clear that the government had done too little too late and by January we were in full lockdown with barely a peep of protest.

We could very easily be back in the same position again. Backbenchers end the year accusing him of overreacting, by the beginning of the next year it is clear (not least to the majority of the public) that he has under-reacted.    

The real question is not whether the Prime Minister should be removed because he is doing too much but whether he is culpable – whether out of political weakness or his own lack of grip – for doing too little. The paradox here is that the likely bad news on Omicron in coming weeks will expose the inadequacy of the Prime Minister’s response and surely damage the government’s ratings but also diminish the immediate potency of his Tory critics. At least he was less wrong than them.

His other vulnerabilities remain – the Christmas parties, the flat refurbishment and the general lack of moral authority – but if Omicron behaves as appears likely, the row in the Conservative Party over Covid certificates will be the least of his – and our – problems. 

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