Boris Johnson ignores Tory backbenchers at his peril

Conservative MPs have a long list of grievances and feel they have been left to fend for themselves. 

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Boris Johnson confronted some uncomfortable truths yesterday, at his first meeting with the Conservative backbench 1922 committee executive since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak.

At the confidential meeting between the Prime Minister and the 1922 committee's executive (the committee consists of every backbench Conservative MP; the committee's executive, with whom the Prime Minister met yesterday, are the 18 backbenchers elected to represent the rest of the committee), the Prime Minister was warned that he must tear down the "iron curtain" that surrounds Number 10, after criticisms that Johnson and his top team are failing to listen to backbenchers.

The Tory backbenches have a long shopping list of recent grievances: the Dominic Cummings affair; concerns over the two-metre rule, the 14-day quarantine and the economic recovery; a perceived failure to take a tough enough stance on the preservation of public memorials, exemplified by an op-ed by Ben Bradley, the Tory MP for Mansfield, who wrote at the weekend that voters expect the government to be a "staunch defender" of culture and heritage, "otherwise it is not a Conservative government at all"; and, most recently, the slow U-turn on free school meal vouchers. 

The meeting yesterday highlighted a feeling, particularly among the 2019 intake of Conservative MPs, who were elected in "Red Wall" seats and are sitting on tiny majorities, that Tory MPs have been left to fend for themselves on the above issues, sacrificing political credibility in defence of policy decisions they believe may not have been made were the lines of communication improved between them and Number 10. 

From sacked ministers, to select committee chairs, to new MPs in marginal seats, the Prime Minister is failing to engage with his parliamentary party. It is notable that many of the people who were written off as "scorned former ministers" during the recent rebellion on remote voting were rebelling for the very first time in that vote, having been sacked when Johnson took office. Most prime ministers make a concerted effort to maintain the goodwill of former ministers by inviting them to Downing Street, massaging their egos, and leaving open the possibility of a return to government. Johnson has failed to put in that legwork behind the scenes: the rebellion of scorned MPs is arguably not due to their original sacking but, for want of a better word, because of a lack of aftercare. 

During Johnson's campaign for the Conservative leadership, this was an area of previous weakness that Carrie Symonds, herself a powerful and well-connected figure across the Conservative party, is understood to have encouraged Johnson to address. He held one-to-one meetings with as many Conservative MPs as he could, in a new office in Portcullis House that was acquired specifically for the purpose, and made a concerted effort to be more approachable on the parliamentary estate. Nearly a year on, the Prime Minister is paying the price for failing to maintain that effort into his premiership, in the form of policy errors and a majority that suddenly doesn't seem so secure. 

The Downing Street operation prides itself on being closely in touch with public opinion; a source close to Number 10 says they are in receipt of almost daily private polling on public attitudes towards the coronavirus response. But another surefire way of remaining in touch with your voter base is by consulting with MPs, who have a personal stake in the matter, and, through their inboxes and constituency work, have a better ear to the ground than advisers in Number 10. Downing Street sidelines them at its peril. 

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman

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