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14 September 2020

Boris Johnson’s No 10 faces an ugly humbling unless it changes its ways

The Prime Minister is surrounded by people who tell him that he’s wonderful and that his opponents are irrelevant. 

By Tim Montgomerie

If you aren’t completely, unswervingly, unquestioningly with us then you are against us – and we will treat you accordingly. The problem with treating everyone in possession of an independent mind as an enemy is that you steadily begin accumulating many more opponents than you can ever possibly manage. That, however, is the pugilistic way of this Downing Street.

On the face of it, Boris Johnson’s government can afford to manufacture enemies on an industrial scale without conjuring up any real threat to its operational effectiveness – let alone a rebellion that would unseat it. It was less than a year ago, after all, that the Prime Minister won a Commons majority of 80 seats. No leader in the Western world appeared to be more dominant or more secure.  

It might be time, however, for a thorough stock-take and there’s nowhere such a stock-take is more needed than in No 10 itself. With Johnson surrounded by people who tell him that he’s wonderful and that his opponents in parliament and the media are all irrelevant, there is a danger that he misses the rising temperature beyond his Downing Street and cabinet cocoon – whose members were selected, above all else, for their slavish loyalty.

Let’s begin with that supposedly impenetrable majority of 80. More than 50 Tory MPs complained publicly about the conduct of Dominic Cummings during the lockdown and called for him to resign or be sacked. At least the same number made similar demands of government whips in private. All requests were ignored. “Many of us effectively became independent Conservative MPs from that moment,” explained one humbled and angry backbencher to me. The sense that only the opinion of a charmed inner circle matters was reinforced last week. Nearly every cabinet minister objected to the instigation of “the rule of six” but it was still instigated – and without any parliamentary debate or scrutiny.

It’s not just the opinions of “lowly” backbenchers or pliable cabinet ministers that are ignored. Downing Street has managed to provoke the opposition – or at least the annoyance – of every living former Tory leader. John Major (on Brexit), William Hague (China and state aid), Iain Duncan Smith (China and lockdown), Michael Howard (the Internal Market Bill), David Cameron (the Internal Market Bill) and Theresa May (on too many issues to mention).

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Then there are the various Conservative chairmen (and they are nearly all men) of the powerful select committees in the House of Commons. Mel Stride of the Treasury Committee has already called for the Chancellor to introduce a “targeted” extension of the furlough scheme. Robert Halfon at education is overseeing a forensic examination of the summer’s exams debacle – one which might yet (fingers crossed) be the end of Gavin Williamson’s lamentable reign. Jeremy Hunt at health is asking the toughest questions about a track and trace regime which still falls well short of “world-beating”.

And with Tom Tugendhat at foreign affairs, Tobias Ellwood at defence, Bob Neill at justice, Simon Hoare at Northern Ireland and Caroline Nokes at women and equalities, there’s clearly going to be much more fire than friendliness heading the government’s way from Augustus Pugin’s famous committee corridors. And I haven’t even mentioned Julian Lewis, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, who was expelled from the Conservative parliamentary party for having the audacity to outwit Chris Grayling.

What I’m not saying is that all of these characters – from disgruntled backbenchers to critical ex-leaders – are actively opposed to this government and to its success. At the very least, though, they are increasingly inclined to be publicly critical and, because of a declining belief that anyone in Downing Street will listen to them privately, the volume of that criticism is likely to be harmful. 

The attitude of Cummings to the media – and the bubbling hostility that has resulted – provides a good illustration of the dangers ahead. Because it’s not just the BBC which Downing Street regards as an irritant to be bypassed and ignored. Much of the Tory press has also been classified as a problem. The result has been evident – day after day – on the front page of the Daily Mail.

The paper may have a different editor than during the EU referendum – when Paul Dacre launched editorial assaults on David Cameron – but the taste the Mail acquired during that time for attacking a Conservative PM hasn’t gone away. The vehemence with which it has been attacking the Tories has been quite something to behold but, more significantly, its concerns are largely justified: the government’s lack of attention to the economic consequences of anti-Covid measures; Williamson’s passing of the buck over the exam algorithm; and the government’s pedestrian response to the left’s ascendancy in the culture wars.

Yes, the team in Downing Street won an election but – hold the front page – they don’t know everything. It’s just possible – even just occasionally – that the Mail, backbench Tory MPs, expert committee chairs and even former leaders might have a better sense of the mood at the Dog & Duck or of the complexity of an issue. 

There are few signs that Boris Johnson’s team is willing to concede this point yet but it is only a matter of time before it is forced to do so. It can do so voluntarily (and the sooner the better) or, via another great public failing, it will be compelled to do so. And, should that be necessary, the humbling will be ugly. Nine months into this re-elected Tory government’s relationship with the wider Tory family, a lot of distrust has been born. And it’s growing. 

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