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5 January 2022updated 06 Jan 2022 9:50pm

Boris Johnson’s last chance

Criticised over the Downing Street flat refurbishment and lockdown-breaking parties, the PM is running out of time to turn his fortunes around.

By Tim Ross

A week after finally getting Brexit done, in a Christmas Eve trade deal with the European Union in 2020, Boris Johnson expressed his usual optimism. “We have our freedom in our hands and it is up to us to make the most of it,” he declared in his New Year’s message, 12 months ago.

One year on, with a new variant of coronavirus surging again, that sense of freedom has largely dissipated. Johnson is beset by crises and assailed by critics on all sides, including many inside the parliamentary Conservative Party. His political allies worry he is wasting his chance to reshape the country after Brexit. His opponents gleefully attack him over a succession of scandals, senior resignations and lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street.

Many voters who backed him in 2019 are now recoiling in disgust. The by-election in North Shropshire on 16 December, which would not have been necessary had he not tried to rewrite parliamentary ethics rules to help his old friend and then fellow MP Owen Paterson, cost the Tories an ultra-safe seat they had held for nearly 200 years.

As the spread of Omicron cases threatens to overwhelm the NHS again, the possibility of tighter pandemic restrictions looms over an economy already under strain from the effects of Brexit and the highest inflation in a decade. Consumers face soaring energy bills, as well as tax rises in April, and the scandal-hit Conservative Party is staring at possible humiliation in local elections in May.

Many of Johnson’s colleagues have already had enough. “The elastic has snapped,” a senior Tory warned. There is talk of a leadership contest in the months ahead. According to one minister, “Boris is definitely drinking in the last chance saloon.”

It is a dramatic descent for a Prime Minister who just two years ago demolished Labour’s Red Wall to win a majority of 80. How did things get so bad for Johnson? Is there anything he can do to turn his fortunes around? And if he fails, will the Tories remove the man who delivered the party’s biggest election victory since 1987?

Amid all the economic uncertainty of the pandemic, and a succession of headlines about sleaze, one issue has had the greatest impact on Johnson’s ratings: revelations that his senior aides held parties in Downing Street while the public was locked down. Johnson professed himself “sickened” when a video emerged of staff joking about one Christmas event in 2020 – a “party” his team insisted never happened.

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For Johnson’s ministers and advisers, it is now alarmingly clear that these stories have damaged the government’s reputation. In a poll of nearly 25,000 adults by Focaldata for the Sunday Times published on Christmas Day, the Conservatives were trailing on 32 per cent, eight points behind Labour’s 40 per cent.

As he prepared to welcome in the New Year, Johnson himself got a dose of cold water from his election team, who confirmed the bad news from their private polling. Isaac Levido, who masterminded the Tories’ 2019 victory, and the pollster Michael Brooks told the Prime Minister the rows over sleaze and parties in Downing Street had caused serious damage. Voters are disappointed the government seems to be focused on helping itself rather than working for them and ministers need to get on with delivery, Johnson was told.

Findings from two investigations into sleaze in government are expected in early January. The first is into the facts surrounding the No 10 parties that allegedly broke lockdown rules. Sue Gray, a senior civil servant, is leading that investigation and has a reputation for shredding individuals who fall short of the high standards of ethical behaviour expected of public officials.

The second inquiry is Lord Christopher Geidt’s re-examination of Johnson’s tortuous financing arrangements, via a Tory donor and party headquarters, for the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat. In an exchange of letters released on 6 January, Johnson offered a “humble and sincere apology” to Geidt for failing to disclose WhatsApp messages he exchanged with the donor, Lord Brownlow, which could have affected the inquiry.

Again, the crucial question was whether the PM’s conduct complied with standards of ethical behaviour for government ministers. While Geidt concluded Johnson did not breach the rules, he was heavily critical of the prime minister’s handling of the episode, which he said showed “insufficient” respect for the role of the ethics adviser.

“Johnson is vulnerable,” said Catherine Haddon, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government. “He has used up a lot of political capital – with his own party, but also with the British public – and he has wasted it, in effect, on small things.”

Some premiers grow in popularity, usually when they start from a low base, as Margaret Thatcher did, and prove themselves in office. But once a popular leader loses public approval, “it is very hard to shift it back”, Haddon said. Many observers think the Whitehall establishment will close ranks around the Prime Minister and his top officials, with the expectation being that, at most, “deputy heads will roll”. That calculation could yet change if Kathryn Stone, the parliamentary standards watchdog whom Johnson’s team tried, in effect, to force out, decides to look into any of the scandals swirling around him.

More difficult for Johnson in the short term will be limiting the damage from rapidly rising Covid infections while preventing his increasingly restless and restriction-averse MPs from rising up against him. The government is trying to avoid taking tougher action to contain the new variant but can’t rule out further measures as record numbers of people test positive. For many Tories already dismayed by Johnson’s record of blunders, tighter pandemic rules would be intolerable.

While Conservatives were willing to accept short-term emergency curbs on individual liberty at the start of the pandemic, their patience has now run out. A remarkable 99 Tory MPs voted against relatively mild Covid “Plan B” measures, including the mandatory wearing of face masks on public transport as well as guidance on working from home, and the Brexit minister, David Frost, quit in protest over the government’s direction last month.

One well-placed Conservative estimated the true number of Tories who opposed Plan B to be “double or triple” the number who voted against it – meaning as many as 300 out of Johnson’s 361 MPs do not support his pandemic strategy.

Ministers have already reintroduced mask wearing for secondary school pupils in England (the devolved UK administrations set their own rules) and will face intensifying calls for greater restrictions if the NHS is overwhelmed by new Covid admissions. Health officials see grave risks for vulnerable older people whose protection from booster jabs will begin wearing off in January and February, combined with what could be a further upsurge in cases caused by households mixing over Christmas and New Year.

There are also fears that the number of health workers themselves falling ill to Covid risks compromising the viability of the NHS, which will lead medics to make invidious decisions on treatment. “At some point it becomes a question of which patients you leave out on the pavement,” one said.

Johnson’s critics will blame him if the pandemic causes a wave of worker absence that disrupts schooling, transport and supply chains. ScotRail was forced to cancel scores of services and announce temporary changes to its train timetable from 4 January due to hundreds of staff isolating. The government has had months to prepare but is only now ordering urgent contingency plans for worker shortages in critical sectors.

If Johnson does need to enact tighter rules for England, pressure will grow on the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to add to the government’s £400bn spent on emergency pandemic support. Vastly increasing state borrowing to prop up private enterprises and public services is another flashpoint issue for many Tories and has troubled relations between No 10 and the Treasury in the past.

Tensions between Sunak and Johnson are a good barometer of the Prime Minister’s authority. When he bounced the Chancellor into approving a tax rise to finance increased funding for health and social care in September, Johnson was enjoying a decent poll lead over Labour following the vaccine roll-out and reopening of the economy. By contrast, Sunak’s allies are now making it known that he’s as unhappy with the idea of more spending on pandemic assistance as he is wary of imposing restrictions on individual liberty.

It is a struggle that could come to define the government – and dictate Johnson’s fate – during 2022, as the Treasury and the Bank of England contend with rising inflation and what economists expect to be a cost-of-living squeeze for millions. Prices in shops have risen sharply in recent months. Inflation is 5.1 per cent – the highest in a decade – and the rate is expected to keep increasing. Tory MPs are already demanding the government cut VAT on energy bills to help families cope.

“It is quite extraordinary that we’re talking about 6 per cent inflation,” said Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. “The big political problem is people feeling – and being – worse off.” A new Covid support package from Sunak would risk driving inflation even higher, he said.

According to the Resolution Foundation think tank, a combination of rising energy prices when the cap on household bills is lifted and the new NHS and social care tax will cost families an extra £1,200 a year from April.

 

In May voters will go to the polls in local elections across the UK that analysts fully expect to be difficult for the Tories. If the results are as bad as some predict, and the wider political context has not improved, the Prime Minister could face a leadership challenge, which is triggered when 15 per cent of Conservative MPs demand a contest in formal letters to Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. Sunak, who remains generally popular with the public, and the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, a libertarian and new darling of the party membership, would be in the front rank of candidates to replace him. Jeremy Hunt, the former foreign secretary, remains interested in leading the party as well.

In the words of one MP, the party’s relationship with Johnson as leader has always been “very transactional” – they chose him because of his record of winning elections. This makes it more dangerous for Johnson, the MP said, to be disappointing both those Conservative libertarians who would be his natural supporters and Brexiteers who see their long-dreamt of opportunities being squandered.

Then there are the internal divisions between northern English Tories in former Labour seats, who want the government to spend on “levelling up” disadvantaged and neglected regions of the country, and those traditional, more ideological small-state Tories who cherish fiscal conservatism and believe Johnson is neglecting his party’s southern base. Unlike Labour MPs, Tories can be brutal as well as pragmatic when it comes to removing failing leaders – as Theresa May and Iain Duncan Smith discovered.

For much of his political career, Johnson has succeeded in part because he is such an adept shape-shifter. During the early phase of the UK’s bitter divorce negotiations with the EU, he described his “policy on cake” as “pro having it and pro eating it”. The cake-eating metaphor reflected a belief that he doesn’t have to make difficult choices and can invent the rules of the game by which he plays.

Johnson’s insouciance and self-belief infuriated Brussels, and his casual political style is now wearing thin with his own party. Governing is different from campaigning and the risk for Johnson is that if he doesn’t soon choose what kind of government he wants to lead, his increasingly impatient colleagues may choose someone else to run it.

Johnson loyalists in the cabinet – such as Nadine Dorries, the Culture Secretary, and Oliver Dowden, the party co-chairman  –  are urging Tories to keep their troubles in perspective. “Everyone needs to calm down,” one said. “We have three years to get through all this. We have a lot to deliver and have had to spend two years on Covid.”

A relaunch of the government’s agenda is due in January, with the Levelling Up Minister, Michael Gove, preparing to publish a delayed white paper fleshing out Johnson’s nebulous plan to regenerate neglected regions. Truss is now taking charge of negotiations with the EU over trade rules for Northern Ireland.

The Christmas break afforded time for tempers to cool. As MPs return to Westminster, Johnson will be under pressure again, not least from a Labour Party that is regaining some confidence after years of infighting.

Is the Prime Minister losing his touch? Can he get a grip on a decadent and dysfunctional No 10 operation? Without a shake-up, Conservatives fear further pain from self inflicted injuries such as Owen Paterson’s breach of standards rules and the questionable Christmas parties. In the words of one of his ministers, Boris Johnson’s first priority for 2022 is simple: “Stop screwing up.”

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This article appears in the 05 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Johnson's Last Chance