Why Boris Johnson will struggle to recover from his political woes

Johnson's fundamental problem is he never possessed the skills required to be a successful prime minister.

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The Conservative Party is fortunate that its conference is online this year. Although Boris Johnson led the party to a “stonking” general election victory last December, a hall full of the party faithful would have precious little to cheer about now.

Scarcely ten months after the Tories won their biggest parliamentary majority in 32 years, Labour has caught the Conservatives in the opinion polls, Johnson’s net approval rating has slumped to minus 22, and Keir Starmer has become voters’ preferred prime minister. A major survey by Conservative peer Michael Ashcroft shows the words most associated with Johnson are “incompetent” and “out of his depth”. 

Even within his party, Johnson has lost his lustre. In a pre-conference canvas of party members by the ConservativeHome website he scored the lowest satisfaction rating – minus 10.3 – of any cabinet minister save the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson. Some 63 per cent thought he was handling the pandemic badly. His backbenchers are mutinous. The Tory press has turned sharply critical. Speculation about his likely successor is already rife.

Covid-19 was not Johnson’s fault, of course, but the pandemic has upended his premiership. The Conservatives chose him as their leader in order to win a general election and deliver Brexit, not to tackle the gravest crisis to afflict this country since the Second World War. 

Not surprisingly, as a former newspaper columnist with a short attention span and an inability to master detail, he has flunked that challenge. He failed to prepare the UK’s defences against the looming threat, failed to lock down soon enough, failed to protect care homes and health workers, failed to provide robust test and tracing, and failed to sack Dominic Cummings for blatantly breaching lockdown rules. He has over-promised, under-delivered and forfeited public trust.

As the inevitable second wave of Covid-19 hits, his government is responding with scattershot local lockdowns, seemingly random restrictions and a test and trace system that remains scandalously unfit for purpose. As ministers waver between saving lives and saving the economy, their pronouncements are increasingly ignored or defied. 

It is hard to say what Conservative backbenchers are most dismayed by. The draconian powers that this “freedom-loving” government has awarded itself? Its scorn for the parliament whose sovereignty Brexit is supposed to be restoring? Its abandonment of all restraints on public spending? Its readiness to break international law? Its constant U-turns? Its ineptitude? Johnson’s feeble performances at the despatch box? His dependence on Cummings, who treats MPs and ministers with manifest contempt?

As many as 80 Tory MPs were prepared to back an amendment demanding votes on the government’s emergency Covid-19 measures last week – and this is a parliamentary party that was purged of its supposed rebels last autumn. Fifty demanded (in vain) that Johnson sack Cummings for his Durham escapade. Three former prime ministers, two former chancellors and two former attorney generals  all Conservatives  have condemned the government’s threat to renege on a Brexit withdrawal agreement freely negotiated and approved by parliament only last autumn. 

Newly elected Tory MPs from the North and Midlands are concerned that their constituencies are worst affected by the local lockdowns, those in the South scarcely at all. Tory MPs and councillors across the Home Counties are perturbed by the government’s new planning regime. All but the most hardline Brexiteer MPs are alarmed at the prospect of Scotland seceding from the Union.

There may be four years until the next general election, but it is hard to see how Johnson can recover from his present travails. For a start, the news is likely to get a lot, lot bleaker – or “bumpier” to use Johnson’s euphemism  before it gets better. Covid-19’s second wave has only just begun to hit. The lockdowns will get wider and harsher as winter arrives. Unemployment will soar. Deal or no deal, the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December will cause yet more hardship and disruption. 

Johnson will brag about taking Britain out of the European Union, but his only significant achievement to date will likely prove a hollow victory. Amid the terrible economic reckoning to come, there will be little cash left for the nearest thing he has to a coherent programme for government – “levelling up”.

After Covid-19, the public will be less ready to believe Johnson’s bluster, or to give him the benefit of the doubt. He will be constantly harried and exposed by Starmer, the first able opposition leader in a decade. Rightly or wrongly, Rishi Sunak’s every move will be seen as part of a plot to replace him. Witness the way the Chancellor’s recent exhortation that we should “live without fear” was interpreted as a challenge to the Prime Minister. 

Johnson is increasingly portrayed as a leader adrift, and as one who has lost his vigour and verve. Once narratives like that take hold, they are extremely difficult to shake, as John Major, Gordon Brown and Theresa May can attest.

The most fundamental reason that Johnson will struggle to recover, however, is that he never possessed the skills required to be a successful prime minister in the first place. He has shown scant sign of growing into the job. He lacks application, responsibility, experience, vision, wisdom, honesty, principles, core beliefs and moral compass. He is primarily a showman, as Conservative MPs knew full well when they so cynically elected him party leader. Theirs was a calculation based purely on electoral expediency, not on respect, affection or the national interest. 

There will doubtless be ritual declarations of support following Johnson’s keynote speech to the online conference tomorrow, but when the party concludes that he has become a liability, and that a better alternative exists, it will dump him with the same lack of scruple.

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times and a New Statesman magazine contributing writer and online columnist.

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