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The end of the affair: how Tory MPs are falling out of love with Boris Johnson

Faced with a government that appears both authoritarian and weak, many Conservative backbenchers are wondering what they ever saw in Johnson. 

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Seventy-two hours before Sajid Javid was forced to resign as chancellor in February, a stark claim appeared in the Daily Mail. With a cabinet reshuffle imminent, the paper splashed on a supposed “war” between Carrie Symonds, Boris Johnson’s partner, and Dominic Cummings, his chief adviser. The piece, soon denied by reporters close to Symonds, quoted only “well-placed Treasury sources”. But a senior figure from Javid’s team is adamant: "No one in No 11 would ever brief that," they tell me. Days later Johnson demanded Javid fire his advisers – the Prime Minister couldn’t have a Treasury team briefing against him. Javid refused and quit No 11.

Four months later, the executive of the Conservative 1922 Committee met with the Prime Minister. The 1922 exists to represent back-bench MP feeling to the party leadership; meetings between the executive and the Prime Minister are kept private. But the June meeting was leaked. “Purportedly by us,” says one of the MPs who attended. In reality, they say, “No 10 briefed it out. And then we were blamed for leaking it.”

In both cases, a message appeared to be being sent to the Prime Minister. Tories from outside the No 10 team – whether from the 1922 Committee or Javid's Treasury – were not allies. The only people Johnson could trust were the circle of advisers around him.

***

It is hard to find a Conservative MP who is impressed by the present government. At best, a few are forgiving. To gauge feeling on the backbenches, I spoke with 15 Tory MPs from all wings of the party. The group included five current select committee chairs and four former cabinet ministers. Almost all of them declined to defend a government whose agenda they struggle to define and whose record since the 2019 general election many see as a toxic combination of authoritarian and weak.

“Johnson was a wartime general put in to deliver a result on the battlefield, elected to deliver Brexit,” says Roger Gale, a Tory MP since 1983. But now, says Gale, “I just wonder if he’s a rebel without a cause.”

Others are more blunt, describing Johnson as entirely unfit to lead a government. “He genuinely doesn't give a flying fuck what the policy is,” says one prominent Tory MP. In any case, “he's never done the homework, so he doesn’t know anything. There really is no point in talking to the Prime Minister about policy at all.”

For Charles Walker, an MP since 2005 and a recent chairman of the 1922 Committee, Johnson has needlessly sidelined the House of Commons throughout the Covid-19 crisis, to ill-effect. “I’m getting very frustrated,” he tells me. “We granted the government huge powers [in March].” It is long past time, he says, for parliamentary rule to return.

At the heart of Johnson’s government is a No 10 court that MPs widely distrust, even if many retain an affection for Johnson himself. “Boris Johnson enjoys incredible support among the parliamentary party,” says Walker. The court, not the king, is the focus of MPs’ dismay. Some talk wistfully of marching on No 10 and liberating Johnson from his advisers. 

[See also: Harry Lambert on the humbling of Dominic Cummings

Many in the party believe that cabinet ministers are controlled by Downing Street. “We’ve got multiple tiers of government control now, and ministers are basically Potemkins,” says Steve Baker, a former chairman of the European Research Group. A select committee chair describes the current set of ministers as having “signed their contract in blood”. Loyalty, says another chair, is the only test of office. Competence, says a third, is nothing more than a bonus, and an occasional one at that. 

The more positive MPs struggle to give an account that is more than a qualification of the negatives. “Levelling up,” says one of the party’s potential future stars, commenting on the government’s flagship post-Brexit agenda: “You and I both know it's vague, but vague is OK.”

But others in the party fear that Johnson’s team is doing lasting damage, both to the party and the country. Baker, one of the MPs most pivotal to the passing of Brexit, is unnerved by the “pain that the whole country is being put through” in pursuit of Cummings’ revolutionary aims. Cummings, says Baker, “doesn’t mind going after an objective and sowing fear and devastation in the minds of people everywhere”. But, Baker warns, “You can't treat a society this roughly.”

The Tory party is far from being in revolt. But a deep disquiet is brewing. Many MPs feel that while they chose Johnson to lead them, they are now being ruled by his unaccountable gang. Johnson has also proven far less able in office than many hoped. MPs watched in distress recently as the man who has cast himself as a Churchill failed to fend off the parliamentary attacks of Ed Miliband, a man Tory MPs thought they had defeated long ago.

In one of the country’s most consequential parliaments in decades, Johnson and his circle are driving through a revolution in which few feel involved. The Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto is thin and, in a post-Covid world, long out of date. Tory MPs are in power, but they have little sense of the plan. That may prove untenable. Johnson is not assured of seeing his revolution through. “If a smash comes,” Baker says, “it will come very hard and fast. And the more isolated he is, the more at risk he will be.” 

***

Back-bench discontent is not, of course, unusual. A key adviser from the Blair era tells me that Labour MPs were similarly marginalised then. The party was run by “the prime minister and his gang”. David Cameron maintained a similarly tight clique, while Margaret Thatcher became an isolated monarch as her reign wore on, with some of her No 10 advisers acting as cabinet ministers in all but name. “I don’t think the sense that parliament is not in the thoughts of the government is a new one,” says Greg Clark, the former business secretary. 

Yet still this government feels different to many key Tory MPs. Never before has the most powerful aide in No 10 been so openly contemptuous of the party. “Ninety-nine per cent of MPs,” Cummings is reported to have said in a book published in 2017, “are dreadful characters.”

The Covid-19 crisis fit Cummings’ approach to government and parliament: one was empowered, the other made irrelevant. When Covid-19 struck in March, No 10 had MPs pass a law – the Coronavirus Act – which granted the government wartime authority to act unilaterally. In doing so, Downing Street chose not to use the Civil Contingencies Act (CAA), a law passed in 2004 specifically designed for crises such as Covid.

No 10 claimed that the act was legally unfit for the pandemic, but later conceded that the CAA posed a political problem: parliament would have had to renew the government’s authority every 30 days. The Coronavirus Act, in contrast, imposed only a six-month renewal date on the government, a far weaker safeguard.

That left parliament in the cold, exasperating long-time parliamentarians such as Charles Walker. “I fully understood the sense of urgency when this pandemic hit,” he tells me, but MPs such as Walker cannot fathom why Johnson has not validated his decisions through the House of Commons – a body full of new Tory MPs eager to vote for him. Even Labour, Walker thinks, would, in the end, have supported almost everything the government has done. That would have given Johnson a great deal of protection in any future inquiry, a protection he does not now have.

“Use the House, for Christ's sake! Can I say this? Launder what you want to do through the House of Commons! Dip our hands in the blood! So when the questions are asked,” says Walker. "[Johnson could say,] 'But they supported me! You were there! You voted for it! I've got a list here of the 593 MPs who went through the division lobby to support it!'”

Instead, No 10 alone owns the past six months, and MPs have been robbed of much of their purpose. They have not, says Walker, been able to raise their “constituents’ hopes, fears, concerns and aspirations” as they were elected to do. MPs, like most employees, understand that they are not in charge, but they want to know that they have been heard; that an act or a plan may be tweaked in some small way. It is, suggests Walker, like having children. Let them win some of the time and they will let you win most of the time.

[See also: Philip Collins on Boris Johnson's autumn of discontent]

Johnson has failed to create so effective a relationship. It is not clear what this has gained him other than needless conflict with the people who will decide whether he fights the next election. “If you treat this place with disdain and disregard, I don’t care how big you are, you will eventually get monstered,” says a senior Tory backbencher and former cabinet minister. “You have to manage this place.”

On 30 September, parliament renewed the government's powers under the Coronavirus Act, but only after Downing Street was forced into a concession by dozens of Conservative MPs, led by Baker. After months of ruling by ministerial fiat, the government has promised to consult the House in future before implementing any "significant national measures". "Wherever possible," announced Matthew Hancock, the Health Secretary, "we will hold votes before such regulations come into force".

For now the rebels have been quelled. But in a truncated debate on the motion, Walker delivered a furious warning to No 10. "A lot of people in this place are angry," he said. The party is ready to rebel if the government falls short of its word. Walker voted against renewal.

***

There are a few Tory MPs who maintain that all is well. One relatively new member cautions against criticising the centre: Britain needs strong government. “You can turn up the dial too far on parliamentary democracy,” they say, pointing to the gridlock of the 2017-19 parliament. As for the cabinet, its irrelevance has been regularly proclaimed since the 1960s. The MP also thinks it wrong to see Johnson as an absent prime minister; he makes just as many decisions as Cameron did.

Another younger MP thinks it is too early in the parliament for unease. The better cabinet ministers will develop standing over time, as Rishi Sunak has done at the Treasury. And while Johnson’s court is powerful, its central figures, including Cummings, are at least thoughtful; “they read”.

Both MPs could well become ministers. Their relative optimism is perhaps natural. But one or two of the party’s longest-serving MPs are also sanguine. “We've had so many crises,” says Edward Leigh, an MP since 1983, “I am certainly not going to say the party is in meltdown.” No 10 has had to see off a series of incipient rebellions with multiple U-turns – over free school meals, exam results and its incendiary approach to Brexit – but some MPs will tell you that the system is working so long as No 10 responds to the pressure.

Yet much is disregarded by this line of thinking, and most MPs do not appear to buy into it. Many feel that the brazen power of this prime ministerial court is unique. There may also be something inadequate about the man atop it. And, as parliament hurtles towards the constitutional revolution of Brexit, there is little sense of what that man or his court have planned for Britain. MPs have, says one select committee chair, been left feeling like nothing more than “the whipping boys and girls for whatever grenade needs to be thrown”.

Johnson’s court is the primary cause of disquiet. The Prime Minister may ultimately decide policy – at least on the few issues that reach his desk – but it is his team who interpret and implement it. Parts of it are unobjectionable to MPs: his senior aide Edward Lister is as quiet and capable a helmsman as Edward Llewellyn was for David Cameron. But Cummings’ role is, for many, an ongoing insult. Unlike Steve Hilton, the short-lived iconoclast of the Cameron government, Cummings holds actual power over special advisers, who all report to him; the cabinet, who are felt to defer to him; and the civil service, out of whose primary building he now works. “The government has moved to the cabinet office and left the Prime Minister behind,” says a senior Tory MP.

MPs bristle at this because of the message it sends to them. It was one thing for Johnson to draft in Cummings last year with Brexit at an impasse and a general election needing to be won. It was another for him to retain Cummings in May after many considered his chief aide to have broken lockdown rules, outraging much of the country. While more than 40 Tory MPs publicly called for Cummings to go, multiple MPs tell me that most of the party demanded it privately. Johnson’s decision to ignore them rapidly drained support. “There’s been no goodwill since that moment onwards,” says a key Tory backbencher.

When that crisis hit, Conservative MPs watched Cummings display the same contempt towards the public that he has shown towards them, offering inconceivable justifications for his actions that have since become a national punchline. He could, says a select committee chair, have simply conceded that he was in the wrong. “But no, no, no, no,” says the MP. No 10 was obstinate, determined “to win, and to hell with the consequences”.

That mentality, says another chair, comes from the unique mandate that Cummings and the Vote Leave veterans in government believe they won in 2016. The chair points to the government's recent attempt to override the Withdrawal Agreement: it is clearly bad faith to sign a treaty and then announce your invention to violate it within eight months. And yet No 10 was, in the eyes of some, able to act as if its proposed breaking of international law was excused by an asterisk.

“I can tell you,” the MP says, “this is un-conservative, this is illegal, this is un-parliamentary.” But to the architects of Brexit, a higher authority is at play. Having won the right to claim the will of the people, Brexiteers can brush any obstacle aside – parliament can be prorogued, rebels cast out as heretics, the law or lockdown evaded.

This is a dangerous place for a party to have ended up, with most MPs feeling locked out, and the caste at the top appearing accountable to no one. Johnson’s cavalier leadership, MPs have belatedly realised, came with a puritanical guard. One MP says that they have lost count of the “number of people I’ve spoken to who feel that their mate Boris is being kept from them”.

MPs see that guard as being defined by Cummings. Two pivotal MPs from different wings of the party both focus solely on him; one says that he has “cloned himself into various people, like Lee Cain”, Johnson’s No 10 director of communications. There are other key figures in No 10 such as Munira Mirza, Johnson’s policy chief, and Mirza’s husband, Dougie Smith, a veteran Tory operative and Cummings stalwart. But there is no sense among MPs that they or anyone else offer an alternative powerbase in No 10.

This team that Johnson is being isolated by is one that MPs never had a chance to vet. Unlike Thatcher, Blair and Cameron, Johnson did not spend any time as leader of the opposition. No seminars were held on the meaning of Johnsonism. The driving forces behind his project were never identified until he was in office and already wielding power. We know far more about Miliband’s unrealised vision for Britain than we have ever known about Johnson’s. But perhaps the biggest problem for the Tory party is that this may be true even of Johnson himself.

***

Some MPs have begun to wonder why they fell for Johnson in the first place. The answer, as ever, is his cheerful veneer. On 2 September, I briefly encountered the Prime Minister passing through the Palace of Westminster. We crossed on an escalator: Johnson and his entourage bounding down as I glided up. I smiled subconsciously in recognition. He caught my eye, grinned, nodded and bound on. “It is all,” his smile seemed to say, as his government returned from a summer of mini-crises, “under control.” For a moment I was taken in.

This is Johnson’s foremost skill. We have seen it before. There is a memorable picture from the State Opening of Parliament in 2019, a week after the general election. Johnson is turned to the camera flashing a Falstaffian grin while Corbyn looks disapprovingly into the distance. The contrast captured the choice. Johnson has made a career out of selling a scoundrel’s version of warmth.

That version of Johnson no longer feels on offer to those I spoke with. The Prime Minister, whom Baker describes as “a gregarious guy who loves other people”, has not just been isolated but redefined by the cold cabal around him. Having elected a man they thought would buoy up Britain with humour and confidence, MPs have ended up with a grey and beleaguered figure, palpably burdened by office. Johnson is, says an MP who helped steer his leadership campaign, “becoming something that he is not”.

Johnson’s current circle is here to stay, at least for now. But the deeper problem for the Tories may be that he lacks any ideological keel without his advisers. There is no sense among MPs that Johnson, in the years after the 2016 EU referendum, spent any time planning for the Britain he wished to lead. One MP describes him as a “prince over the water” during that era, awaiting the throne. But another MP, who recalls visiting him in late 2018, remembers a prince who was simply at sea.

Johnson had, at the time, recently left Theresa May’s cabinet, resigning as foreign secretary over Brexit that summer after David Davis’ departure forced his hand. He was being regularly mauled inside the chamber, hounded by colleagues who saw an opportunity to finish him off. The MP arrived in Johnson’s parliamentary office to find the future prime minister flanked by a bust of Pericles and attended to by Cain, his then press adviser.

[See also: Martin Fletcher on Munira Mirza: the rise of the Oldham libertarian]

As a backbencher, Johnson cut a disconsolate figure, slumped in his chair. His sole concern was “getting back on the backfield” and becoming prime minister. He was far from fizzing with ideas for a post-Brexit state. Now, less than two years later, he has been placed in some of the most demanding circumstances of any postwar premier. MPs fear that he appears entirely unready.

Other prime ministers have, after a time in the wilderness, also faced a sudden call to action. Winston Churchill is one, and the comparison between the pair is stark. Churchill spent his life preparing for leadership. As a young subaltern serving in India, he had his mother send him copies of Hansard so he could prepare the speeches he would have delivered had he been an MP. As a rising minister before the First World War, he ranged across other ministers’ briefs whenever cabinet met; he knew too much not to speak. His contemporaries did not, as one put it, know what to do with his “hundred-horsepower mind”. 

When the Second World War began, Churchill was faced with issues he had spent nearly 50 years examining. It is not clear to MPs what issues, if any, Johnson has ever examined. The only policy other than Brexit that he is publicly associated with is a London bicycle scheme that colloquially bears his name. He inherited the scheme from his predecessor, Ken Livingstone, upon becoming the capital’s mayor in 2008.

This lack of depth is supposedly compensated for by Johnson’s agile mind. An MP who knows him well agrees that he is “incredibly clever and quick-witted”, but this may do little more than perpetuate the underlying problem. Johnson’s agility, says the MP, allows him to survive in conversation while knowing almost nothing about what is being said; one is feeding him just enough verbal clues for him to get by. “And then you walk out, and you'd realise he agreed with 15 totally incompatible things.” 

Nevertheless it would be wrong, I am told by a confidant of No 10, to depict Johnson as the captive of his “svengalis”. He is, they say, “absolutely signed up” to Downing Street’s plans to reform the civil service. But the confidant is also amused by the idea Johnson could have afforded to lose Cummings in May. The Prime Minister does not, they concede, do detail. Someone must.

With Johnson personally visionless, much depends on his lieutenants, not least Cummings and Michael Gove. The Tories’ fate at the scheduled 2024 general election may rest on the pair’s competence. A senior Labour shadow cabinet minister tells me this does not instil fear in him. Gove, they concede, is an “outstanding debater”, the Tories’ best. But his operational record is thin outside of his time at the Department for Education, a tenure some consider to have been visionary, but others only incendiary.

Gove’s brief stints at justice and environmental affairs were, says the Labour MP, unfinished works. So, too, is Gove’s record in Johnson’s government, not least delivering on the issue that brought the pair to power: Brexit.

***

Tory MPs were elected to get Brexit done. But that guiding star casts a dim light. Many in the party have little sense of direction. Roger Gale compares Johnson unfavourably to Thatcher, who “had a very clear sense of where she was going all the time”. John Redwood, another long-serving Tory MP and Thatcher’s former policy chief, adds: “You might not like it. But she would stick to it and you knew what you were getting.” A select committee chair notes that Cameron also offered a clear programme of public sector reform, from schools to the welfare system. Pressed on Johnson’s agenda, Tory MPs confess they “haven't got a clue”.

The aims of Johnson’s court have not been shaped by the parliamentary party. MPs first hear of many policies through the press. But much of the work that excites those in No 10 and the Cabinet Office does not, in any case, involve the Commons. Their most pressing aim – executive reform – is a fight with the ingrained civil service, not a battle within the party.

A Whitehall insider agrees that fight is being waged in two styles: by the belligerence of Cummings, who has threatened officials with a “hard rain”; and by the scrupulous charm of Gove, who disassociated himself from the comment in a recent select committee hearing. The pair are focused on improving, or purging, the "top 200" civil servants in Britain, according to the insider. Getting rid of them all will be “the work of decades”, says the insider, who suspects that only ten per cent of the top 200 are currently committed to No 10’s plans for reform.

In many ways, this is an odd agenda for a party. Reforming the machinery of government is not a doorstep policy. Even if it works, it will have none of the intuitive appeal of Thatcher’s “popular capitalism”, which many voters could not just grasp but touch, by buying their own home or owning shares. If the Cummings-Gove plan works, it will help whomever is in No 10 to control Whitehall: an achievement that may simply be handed to a Labour government. Such a feat would not long be a Tory victory.

Johnson does offer his own broad agenda to rival Thatcher’s: levelling-up. But MPs all agree it has been thoroughly disrupted by Covid-19. Unlike Thatcher and Cameron, Johnson entered office promising to spend, not to cut. But “the money’s been spent”, says Steve Baker, “the money's gone. And I don’t think anybody’s quite faced up to that yet.” In the worst-hit parts of Britain, levelling-up over the next year may look more like staying afloat.

There are, Johnson’s supporters maintain, still reasons for optimism. The Tories are polling at around 40 per cent, and the next general election is still years away. Even if the shock of Brexit, and the ongoing pandemic, thwart the government in 2021, the party will have two years to level-up Britain before the 2024 election. And if the government achieves a Brexit deal this year, as it may, Johnson will have dispelled the long-running fear of a chaotic exit. The economic pain of Brexit will be felt gradually. Many voters may not notice it.

But the other persistent cry one hears – of No 10’s incompetence – will only grow louder if ineptitude persists. “We haven't,” notes one MP, “even hit the difficult period yet.” And Johnson may not make it to 2022 if MPs continue to talk glowingly of Sunak every time he speaks, as many did following his recent economic statement. Johnson could, some think, always ditch his unloved court and, having metamorphosed from liberal mayor to Brexiteer PM, reinvent himself once again. But it may be too late for that.

Harry Lambert is special correspondent of the New Statesman and writes long-reads for the magazine. He tweets at @harrytlambert and can be best reached via the One Great Read newsletter.