Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. UK Politics
25 March 2020

What do Conservative MPs want right now? Ministers who listen

Boris Johnson's change in coronavirus strategy was a sign that he had heard his party's concerns – but serious unease remains.

By Patrick Maguire

What explains the abruptness of the government’s change in coronavirus strategy? Quite apart from epidemiology, there is an altogether more simple answer: Conservative MPs. Over last weekend, there had been serious unease at every level of Boris Johnson’s parliamentary party – from the cabinet down to the 2019 intake – at the speed and severity of the measures the UK had employed to delay the spread of the virus.

For a precis of those concerns – or, more accurately, the manner in which they were being expressed. Look no further than the unsolicited text I received from a former cabinet minister on Sunday afternoon, just after the Prime Minister declined to introduce the sort of enforced social distancing measures that he went on to implement last night: “Aaaaarrrrrggggghhhh!”. Johnson’s interventions before last night’s introduction of a quasi-lockdown exasperated his MPs as much as their perceived shortcomings terrified them.

Why? Quite apart from their unease with the policy that was being communicated, their concern was that Johnson was failing to communicate clearly or consistently. “We need total clarity of message,” a senior backbencher said ahead of the lockdown. “Total communication through every route possibly, and, yes, whatever measures it takes. We need a relentless, determined, focused, definitive strategy to save lives – and ultimately, we don’t have it.” It was a widespread view. “We are vague and slow on social distancing, aren’t helping the self-employed, and are having to do a mini-budget every few days,” a minister said. “There is a hell of a lot of anxiety.”

In changing course so swiftly yesterday, Johnson demonstrated something important to his MPs: that he had listened to their concerns. The next test of Downing Street’s ability and willingness to do so will be whether Rishi Sunak heeds growing unease over measures to compensate the self-employed over the coming weeks and months. Understanding though they are of the demands the pandemic is imposing on government time, Conservative MPs are deeply concerned by just how slow ministers have been to acknowledge their worries – let alone answer them satisfactorily. Johnson’s shifting strategy thus far, however, is a reminder of something important: that power in a majority government ultimately lies with those who make up the government’s majority. If and when the dust settles, Johnson will be well served to remember that fact.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them