Having botched COP, crashed the car into the ditch over Owen Paterson’s brazen paid lobbying, threatened to sue The New European over our story about his off-colour “buyer’s remorse” comment, changed his mind (allegedly), sparked fury by sauntering maskless around a hospital and spectacularly scuppered a speech to business leaders, you might be forgiven for wondering how on earth things could get any worse for prime minister Boris Johnson.
With his bumble-fumble persona looking ever more like a caricature of something that wasn’t funny in the first place, Johnson appears to be losing his audience, if not the plot. It’s a poor state of affairs when the Downing Street press office has to issue a statement basically saying the prime minister hasn’t lost his marbles.
But to put this all down to Johnson’s gaffe-prone, devil-may-care attitude would be foolish. There are deeper, endemic problems here and they have to do with lack of principles, policies that are not working and promises that have not been kept, especially those made to voters in the so-called Red Wall constituencies who have been dealt a double-whammy of disappointment on high-speed rail links and social care costs.
It may yet be too early to call this an annus horribilis for the prime minister but one can imagine that he is counting the days to 2022 and a new start. Even then, he may not be safe because there are several thorns that could yet snag the threads of our unravelling leader over the coming weeks.
The Sun says a dozen Tory backbenchers have sent letters of no confidence in Johnson to the 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady. It’s not enough to trigger a leadership challenge – 15 per cent of Tory MPs would have to send letters – but it’s a sign of considerable discontent.
Justice secretary Dominic Raab dismissed the report as “Westminster tittle-tattle” on LBC radio but it is clear that Johnson’s allure is waning. The Sun quoted a senior Tory MP as saying: “There is real anger. He has until Spring to get back on track or he will be in real trouble. Letters have gone in. I am on the cusp myself.”
The polls are still fairly even between the Conservatives and Labour but many observers say the key to Johnson’s future is his personal rating, and that has been falling.
The tensions between Johnson and Rishi Sunak’s Treasury have been an open secret for a while with reports of Treasury anger over Johnson’s “bungling” of the £96 billion high-speed rail announcement and other concerns over the prime minister’s tendency to over-promise. There are policy rows too: before the COP26 talks, the Observer cited leaked documents as showing a rift between the two men over the cost of a net-zero economy.
And things aren’t getting better, if the tabloids are to be believed. After his disastrous speech to the Treasury’s core constituency, the CBI, the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg quoted a senior Downing Street source as saying: “there is a lot of concern inside the building about the PM… It’s just not working. Cabinet needs to wake up and demand serious changes otherwise it’ll keep getting worse. If they don’t insist, he just won’t do anything about it.”
The source has been dubbed Chatty Pig, with The Daily Mail quoting Johnson’s “allies” as suggesting the briefing came from Number 11. The last thing Johnson needs at the moment is someone else (besides himself) pointing out his inadequacies.
Old Bexley and Sidcup by-election
This may be the biggest stone in Johnson’s path: voters in Old Bexley and Sidcup will go to the polls on December 2 to elect a successor to Conservative MP James Brokenshire, who died in October from lung cancer. Eleven candidates are standing, including Louie French for the Conservatives, Daniel Francis for Labour and former Brexit Party MEP, Richard Tice, now leader of the Reform Party. The Tories are defending a majority of around 19,000 and should they fail, it would be a body blow for Johnson. But Tice has warned that voters in the London constituency are beginning to turn on Johnson, notably because they are furious over the number of illegal immigrants crossing the Channel. After all, Brexit was supposed to allow the UK to take control of its borders but even Johnson himself is allegedly frustrated with how poorly his government is faring (see below).
And even if Old Bexley and Sidcup holds firm, there’s the North Shropshire by-election on December 16 to replace Owen Paterson, and the Liberal Democrats are hoping to mount a serious challenge to this safe Tory seat.
This is not just an issue on the doorsteps of Old Bexley and Sidcup. Apparently, Conservative MPs are getting more and more irate over the government’s failure to stop small boats from crossing the Channel. It’s not good news for home secretary Priti Patel, who can’t be thrilled that cabinet office minister Steve Barclay has been charged with a cross-government review.
The figures are stark: the number of people crossing has tripled since 2020 with 25,000 people making the crossing this year. Now Patel is being subjected to the same sort of anonymous, snarky criticism as Johnson. In the Commons, Sir Edward Leigh described the situation as a “national emergency”, saying the government had “lost control” of the number of people crossing the Channel. The criticism over this crisis may not be enough to sink Johnson but it certainly adds to the political storm.
Social care cap
This week, MPs narrowly backed the social care cap for England, including an amendment that basically means poorer people stand to pay more than wealthier individuals and might even have to sell their homes to cover their care costs. But members of the House of Lords have threatened to send the bill back to the Commons.
That could be a problem in the New Year because the bill only passed the Commons with a slim majority of 26: 19 Conservative MPs voted against while the BBC said another 28 defied government orders and abstained, including former health secretary Jeremy Hunt who said the plans for calculating the cap were “not as generous as people like me wanted”.
Several influential peers have said they will try to amend the bill and send it back to the Commons, which will probably not happen until next March. Still, not quite the fresh start Johnson might hope for in 2022.
As a wave of rising cases rushes across Europe, some health experts in the UK are already sounding very un-boosterish warnings about the need for extra precautions to prevent a similar situation here. Already, in Northern Ireland, people have been urged to work from home where possible, limit their social contacts and wear face coverings indoors.
Health secretary Sajid Javid said this weekend that while there was no room for complacency, further measures were not needed in England. He claimed the booster jab programme was key to keeping infections down and hoped people would be able to spend Christmas together. With everything else going on, the last thing Johnson needs now is to cancel Christmas. Again.