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23 July 2021

As U-turn follows fiasco, Boris Johnson is losing his grip on the Tory party

Downing Street's chaotic mismanagement, from the Matt Hancock scandal to the muddle over self-isolation, is not going unnoticed by Conservative MPs.

By Simon Heffer

The situation comedy that passes for Her Majesty’s Government lurches from one absurdity to another. Just as Dominic Cummings vented his assertion that Boris Johnson resisted a lockdown last autumn because only those of above-average lifespan were dying – “get Covid and live longer” was Johnson’s predictably flippant observation – the Prime Minister was isolating at Chequers, confined by his own overzealous test and trace system. His gung-ho “freedom day” blustering had, like much Johnsonian confidence trickery before it, been abandoned.

That he should have become the most high-profile casualty of his own farcical inability to execute rudimentary acts of governance says all one needs to know about how this country is run.

How long will the Conservative Party allow this very public ineptitude to continue? Just a few weeks ago one kept being told about Johnson that “people like him – he is popular” and that “he is a winner”. It was usually prefaced by the fatuous “you’ve got to hand it to him”. Actually, one doesn’t have to hand anything to him at all: his government is not the beneficiary of brilliant policymaking and communications by him and his associates, but of a Labour Party estranged from its natural electorate and a leader of opposition struggling to engage with the public.

But perhaps things are now starting to change. Johnson’s initial glib endorsement of Matt Hancock, before he U-turned, was upsetting enough to wiser Tories who knew the former health minister had behaved so recklessly that he could not possibly stay in office. Johnson shrugged off the humiliation when Hancock then inevitably resigned – he and shame are strangers – but it unnerved some of his supporters, as it caused entirely avoidable harm to the party and the government.

When Johnson, to whom truth too has long been a stranger, then claimed he had effectively sacked Hancock, the damage became tangible. It ensured Labour won the Batley and Spen by-election; and it helped thwart an operation by the Conservative whips to remove Graham Brady as chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory back-bench MPs. Sir Graham was easily re-elected, not least because of his record of acting as the opposition Johnson so painfully needs, notably in criticising the Prime Minister’s management of the pandemic. Given events since then, Brady will be busy.

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The test and trace fiasco – the “pingdemic” that is hobbling sections of the economy, as an estimated 1.7 million (and rising) people with the NHS app have been advised to isolate for ten days after possibly coming into contact with a positive Covid case – was the next episode in the sequence of incompetence. Johnson’s response to the crisis disappointed many Tory MPs, but did not surprise them.

First, he seemed unable or unwilling to grasp the consequences of advising masses to isolate just as the economy was supposed to be opening up. Then, “pinged” himself because of contact with Sajid Javid, the new Health Secretary, he chose to use an experimental scheme that would allow him to avoid isolation – and was happy for Chancellor Rishi Sunak to use it too. This provoked predictable outrage and forced a comical U-turn within hours, further illustrating Johnson’s poor judgement and incompetence.

The common denominator in these mistakes is the chaotic mismanagement of Downing Street in the post-Cummings era. Rumours that Johnson’s chief of staff, Dan Rosenfield, may be plotting his own departure reflect how impossible serious people find it to work with Johnson, partly because of his dishonesty and partly due to his inability to apply himself professionally to government business. MPs and officials now assume that most of what happens in Downing Street is the direct or indirect effect of the views and friendships of Johnson’s recently acquired third wife, Carrie Symonds. Her friends have enormous influence in No 10; when the Prime Minister makes one of his frequent U-turns it is considered to be the result of advice – or perhaps instructions – Mrs Johnson has given her husband. This is badly affecting morale among MPs and within the party machine, as is the penetrating running commentary provided by Cummings about Johnson’s idiocies, flippancies, incompetence and profound lack of seriousness.

The embarrassment Johnson’s lack of grip is causing the party is a problem MPs feel they can live with for the moment, thanks to Labour’s inadequacies. But at some point the balance will change, when Johnson’s utter unfitness for office and the chaos he creates become such liabilities that pressure mounts to replace him with someone capable of commanding confidence. If Johnson has to reimpose restrictions because his present “freedom” strategy fails, the 1922 Committee will be unforgiving. Many backbenchers believe Johnson incapable of sensibly and critically evaluating scientific advice, which is thus shaping government policy almost at random. A further reverse could undermine him badly, and he appears acutely aware of this.

One chance he may have to reassert what remains of his authority and try a fresh start is through a reshuffle. The rumour is it will come in early September, with the key figure being Gavin Williamson, whose succession of failures as Education Secretary make moving him imperative. With public examinations cancelled for a second year running, another grades fiasco is anticipated in August, with the expectation being that the reshuffle will be delayed until after Williamson has carried the can for any such failure.

But other ministerial appointments need to reflect the urgent challenges facing the government beyond the pandemic. Javid’s recent assumption of power at the Department for Health means he must take responsibility for ensuring the NHS does not buckle in the winter ahead, and that the government does at last tackle the social care crisis. The Courts Service is on the verge of collapse because of the backlog that existed before the pandemic and has been drastically exacerbated during lockdown. The challenge of the Northern Ireland protocol – perhaps the most dangerous threat hanging over Johnson – remains unsolved.

As the Tory defeat in the Chesham and Amersham by-election showed, there is scant confidence in the planning system, while the housing crisis remains worse than ever. Many MPs know from their constituents that there is the perception of a breakdown in law and order in some parts of the country. The government’s environmental policies have not been adequately explained to the Tory party’s core voters, who expect huge increases in the costs of energy, and especially of motoring. Above all, there is the question of how all the money spent during the pandemic is going to be paid back.

To most of the above questions there are no easy answers, and there are few ministers with the intelligence and credibility to drive through the necessary policies.

In Johnson’s favour is the statistic that many fewer people are dying of Covid now than previously in the pandemic, and that the vaccine programme continues relentlessly – the two facts are, of course, linked. But, as he says himself, the pandemic is far from over, and as such there is abundant opportunity for political disaster. His lack of grip and inability to assert control over events are corroding his standing among notional supporters. Sadly, Johnson lacks the character traits to put that process into reverse.