Who knew? Boris Johnson isn’t much good in a crisis. What a shock. He bluffs and blusters, he lacks self-discipline and doesn’t do detail. Quelle surprise. He over-promises and under-delivers. Blow me down. He’s a laugh making an after-dinner speech to an inebriated audience, but not who you want in charge of the sober complexities of modern government in the middle of a pandemic. You amaze me. He is a man without firm principles who doesn’t have a coherent guiding philosophy. I’d never have guessed.
In difficult times, we must take our pleasures where we can find them and one delight has been the tragic parade of distressed Conservative MPs and dolorous Tory newspapers bewailing the flailing performance of their government as they weep that the prime minister has lost the plot. Hearing them, I react as Oscar Wilde reputedly did to the death of Little Nell in Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. One would have to have a heart of stone to read of the death of Tory faith in Boris Johnson without dissolving into tears… of laughter.
As a journalist provocateur, a TV panel show performer, London mayor and Westminster politician, he has been a prominent figure in Tory world for several decades. No previous prime minister came to the office with so many testimonials to his character flaws. Some of them were delivered by himself. Back when he was agonising over whether or not to come out in favour of Brexit, he told friends that he was “veering all over the place like a shopping trolley”. Now he is crashing around with the trolley of state in the middle of the gravest public health emergency in more than a century. Were all these wailing Tories not acquainted with a biography littered with scandals and pratfalls, betrayed colleagues and broken promises? Perhaps there was a small minority of them who genuinely mistook Mr Johnson for a steady strategist, a serious thinker, a diligent administrator and a man of his word. The vast majority cannot plead ignorance. They damn well knew his shortcomings when they chose to make him prime minister.
At the time of the Conservative leadership contest last summer, I asked one senior Tory who he was going to back. I knew he did not trust Mr Johnson further than he could spit at him and that his politics were most in sympathy with Jeremy Hunt, who also happened to be a good friend. Yet he did not vote for Mr Hunt, but persuaded himself to become an enthusiast for handing the keys of Number 10 to Mr Johnson. He did so on the grounds that it would be “a wild ride” and “the gamble that we have to take” to win the 2019 election.
For that purpose, Mr Johnson was a success. With some assistance from Jeremy Corbyn, he secured the best Tory parliamentary majority since 1987. Swooning colleagues declared that he was “the master of all he surveys”. They kept their doubts to themselves when he made Dominic Cummings, memorably described by David Cameron as a “career psychopath”, his chief adviser. They said nothing when he appointed a cabinet conspicuously thin in talent.
Just nine months later, it is now the common currency of Tory complaint that the cabinet is populated with duds, Mr Cummings is a menace and the prime minister stumbles from avoidable debacle to foreseeable disaster. Speculation that he has not properly recovered from his self-described “mugging” by the virus will not go away. Nor will suggestions that being prime minister is not half the jape that he thought it would be. I had another Little Nell moment when I read reports that Mr Johnson is “worried about money” and struggling to get by on the prime minister’s salary. The notion that he might not lead the Tories into the next election began as a conspiratorial whisper, then became a widely shared murmur and is now a persistent buzz among Tory MPs.
The vast bank of political capital that he built up with his party by winning for them has drained away with sensational rapidity. His majority of 80 is now so fragile that Number 10 has to retreat when threatened by a backbench rebellion. “Once you’ve lost your political capital, you lose your majority,” remarks one former cabinet minister. Tory members have fallen out of love with their one-time poster boy. In the latest ConservativeHome survey of what activists think of the cabinet, the prime minister comes in 24thout of 25. The education secretary is the only cabinet member with a worse approval rating. That’s the verdict of Tory members on their own prime minister: “not quite as useless as Gavin Williamson”.
The big accelerant of this decline has been coronavirus. By this, I do not just mean that the pandemic would have been a challenge for any prime minister. I mean that a crisis for which he was particularly ill-equipped has greatly quickened the process of fully manifesting his defects. Like many voters, Tory MPs were prepared to give him the benefit of doubt when Covid-19 first broke out. Like many voters, Tory MPs are now utterly fatigued by serial blunders, gaffes and zig-zags.
Ominously for the prime minister, there is not just one band of dissenters on his backbenches, but several. There are the ideological libertarians who hate the Covid-19 restrictions and are the more furious with Mr Johnson because they used to think of him as one of their own. They intersect with those Tories who bridle that the government keeps changing the rules, and in a chaotic fashion, without prior consultation with parliament. This has isolated the prime minister from many of his old allies. Those backing last week’s mutiny over the coronavirus regulations included David Davis, Iain Duncan Smith, Steve Baker, Peter Bone, John Redwood and Bernard Jenkin. “The interesting thing is that it’s not Tories like me who are most pissed off,” reports one moderate Conservative MP. “It is the right of the party who are the most cross.”
Tory moderates are disturbed by the perpetual war on the institutions being waged by Mr Cummings and were especially appalled by the threat to breach the withdrawal agreement with the EU and break international law. That has also aroused the opposition of senior Brexiters such as Michael Howard, one of five former Tory leaders to condemn the prime minister. Then there is the chunky band of Conservative MPs for whom the main issue is the government’s sheer ineptitude. “It’s the incompetence more than anything else,” sighs one of their number. They are repelled by relentless blundering and shudder at the amount of ammunition being handed to a revived Labour opposition.
One thing these groups have in common is a seething resentment that Mr Johnson pays so little attention to his own MPs. It is telling that some of the most mutinous voices belong to panjandrums of the Tory backbench 1922 committee, which exists to represent backbench opinion to the prime minister. It is highly unusual for the 1922’s chairman to lead a revolt, as Graham Brady did over the scrutiny of coronavirus regulations. One of the 1922’s vice-chairs, Charles Walker, recently warned Number 10: “If you keep whacking a dog, don’t be surprised when it bites you back.”
Once you aggregate all these different factions, you are not left with many Conservative MPs whom you could still call solid Johnson loyalists.
It would be a mistake to leap from there to an assertion that he is already played out. “He will have to reset the government,” says one former cabinet minister. “The question is whether he does it soon enough.” Some recommend the appointment of a deputy prime minister to take a grip on the managerial dimensions of the job, leaving Mr Johnson as a theatrical figurehead. Those Tories suggesting this apparently forget that he is already supposed to have a deputy prime minister by the name of Dominic Raab. Many MPs urge a cabinet reshuffle to replace what one calls “the second XI” at the top table with people with some claim to be competent. A common theme of discontented Tories is that the Johnson premiership cannot be rebooted until he boots out Mr Cummings. This is often the subtext of dissident speeches by Conservative MPs who loathe the prime minister’s chief strategist as profoundly as he holds them in contempt.
Such changes might calm down his party for a while, but there is one thing he cannot alter and that is himself. One senior Tory who voted to install him in Number 10 now laments: “I’m afraid Boris is simply not a good prime minister.” Who knew?
• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer