How much trouble is Boris Johnson in with his own side? Although the biggest names to intervene in the House of Commons were his predecessor, Theresa May, and the former cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell, once a major supporter of the Prime Minister, neither will have caused shock or consternation among government whips. May has long been seen in Downing Street as an internal enemy, while Mitchell has become increasingly critical of the Prime Minister since the cuts to international development spending. No 10 will take a similar view of criticism from Mark Harper, David Cameron’s former chief whip, who has become a regular thorn in the government’s side, particularly over coronavirus legislation.
But interventions from the likes of Andrew Jones, the MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough, Aaron Bell, the MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, and Duncan Baker, the MP for North Norfolk, will worry Johnson loyalists.
Jones is a 2010 intake MP who lost his ministerial post when Johnson became prime minister, and who in many ways fits the profile of the group that has been the most troublesome for Johnson: he is a man, first elected in 2010, sitting on the backbenches with, to be blunt, a near-zero chance of holding ministerial office while Johnson is prime minister. But unlike a lot of colleagues who fit that profile he hasn’t been particularly rebellious. For him and Baker, who was elected in 2019 in what was nominally a gain from the Liberal Democrats, to essentially be echoing Diane Abbott’s question in the House of Commons is a sign of a prime minister with serious problems.
And although Bell’s Newcastle-under-Lyme seat is a slightly unusual 2019 gain in that it sits in Staffordshire, a part of the country that has gradually been moving further and further away from the Labour Party, and in that he has a relatively large majority for a first-term incumbent, it is still striking that both Labour-facing and Liberal Democrat-facing 2019ers feel able to sharply criticise the Prime Minister.
Much talk among Johnson’s allies has been of his ability to survive the present scandal. If we define “survival” as making it until the end of February, he has almost certainly done that. But being able to again thrive in office, and to implement big and radical policies, is a way off, even if the Prime Minister manages to cling on.