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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.

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