n Saturday afternoon, as Boris Johnson prepared to announce the lockdown he had desperately tried to avoid, a vaguely familiar figure slipped into 10 Downing Street to scrutinise the scientific data for himself.
It was not a Cabinet minister, nor a top scientist, but Steve Baker, a backbench MP who this year formed one of the new Conservative pressure groups shooting up across the green benches in Parliament, The Lockdown Sceptics.
With him were three scientists and a data analyst, all allowed to “robustly scrutinise” the graphs that the Prime Minister would present to the nation that evening. Mr Baker was prominent during the Brexit battles as whip and strategist of the Spartans, the toughest and most drilled of the European Research Group of hardline Brexiteers. Covid has made him influential in a new way. “So much for an 80 seat majority,” one Conservative groaned at the sight. “No 10 are having to get Steve Baker and his personal experts to approve their plan.”
It is a year since Boris Johnson launched the general election that would see him return to Westminster with the biggest majority any Conservative premier had enjoyed since Margaret Thatcher in 1987. Twelve months on and the PM’s dreams of untrammelled power are in ashes, as new cracks and fiefdoms emerge daily.
The difficulties were highlighted when the secret “Quad” meeting that agreed lockdown, of Johnson, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, was comprehensively leaked, possibly to prevent the Prime Minister from changing his mind.
Covid-19 has vastly accelerated the inevitable entropy of the centre. Instead of the stability of a big majority, myriad factions rise up in a swirling landscape. One of the most recent is the Northern Research Group, a 70-strong body of MPs whose members reflect not simply a geographical area but also the attitudes of political settlers.
Others range from the “anti-woke” Common Sense Group, that will hold the Prime Minister’s feet to the fire on issues from the BBC licence to immigration, and its antithesis, the progressive One Nation Caucus.
And as Covid-19 has emptied the Tea Room and traditional dining groups at Westminster, skirmishing in the pandemic age has migrated online, in burgeoning WhatsApp groups. Some are monitored closely by the Tory whips, others operate in a secretive twilight world of their own, where encrypted mobile phone messages co-ordinate rebellions beyond No 10’s antennae.
Closer to Downing Street, the Prime Minister also has the usual problems of corralling a Cabinet jostling with clashing egos, rival ideas, and with past and future leadership contenders.
The biggest powerbase outside No 10 is, as always, the Treasury. Although Rishi Sunak avoids publicly disagreeing with the PM, ministers detect differences between them, including over lockdown and spending. Mr Sunak’s speech calling on Britons to “live without fear” caused sharp intakes of breath.
MPs note that Mr Sunak is putting real effort into meeting backbenchers. Sunak’s PPS – his eyes and ears in the Commons – South Suffolk MP James Cartlidge, is regarded as one of the best at schmoozing backbenchers, and more accessible than Johnson’s PPSs Alex Burghart and Trudy Harrison. “No 10 seems to ignore Parliament,” complained one MP. “The Treasury team are very good at listening to backbenchers.”
The Chancellor showed his steel when allies of Gavin Williamson sought to blame him for the free school dinners fiasco. A rare counter-briefing from Great George Street pointed the finger right back at the Education Secretary, saying: “There’s nothing to block. The Department for Education never sent in a spending proposal.”
The junior Treasury PPS, Claire Coutinho, a former investment banker elected last year as East Surrey MP, is regarded as one of the stars of the 2019 intake and a future senior minister.
In Cabinet, a clear dividing line over coronavirus curbs repeatedly emerges between the ministers who oppose heavy restrictions for the sake of the economy – the Chancellor, Business Secretary Alok Sharma, Treasury Chief Secretary Steve Barclay, International Trade Secretary Liz Truss, and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps – and the two quad members who are seen as most keen for early action to save lives, Mr Hancock and Mr Gove. Although fewer in Cabinet, the latter have reinforcements in the form of the Sage scientists and medical experts.
In Parliament, regular elections for select committees have led to the evolution of a new class of independent-minded grandees who owe their positions to the whole House rather than to the machinations of the whips office. One is Justice committee chair Bob Neill who led the revolt against the Internal Markets Bill. Jeremy Hunt, the Health chair is another who commands instant attention when he calls No 10.
On the backbenches, new ginger groups seem to form almost weekly. Northern Research Group’s ambition is clear from the cheeky wordplay of its name, a deliberate echo of the European Research Group (ERG), which called the shots from 2017 to 2019 after Mrs May squandered her majority. “The name is no coincidence,” says one member. “Brexit was the old battleground. The north is where the next election is being fought.”
NRG is led by Jake Berry, the former Northern Powerhouse Minister and previously a close ally of Mr Johnson. It boasts 70 members whose constituencies stretch from the Midlands to across the Scottish borders. Members include Ben Bradley of Mansfield, Jack Brereton of Stoke on Trent South, and at least one Scottish Tory, John Lamont, who represents Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk.
The One Nation Caucus reckons to be the biggest group of Tory MPs with 100 members, a third of them new MPs. Chaired by Damian Green, the former de-facto DPM, it meets weekly, gets ministerial briefings and will soon have outside speakers. It “rescued” Boris from defeat on his threat to break international law with a revolt calibrated to improve rather than destroy the Internal Markets Bill. Although formed in the Brexit wars, Green reinvented the caucus focus on moderniser values rather than Europe. It backed free school meals and will defend the aid budget if Johnson takes aim.
Some groups exist for just one purpose, such as opposing the new planning laws that are infuriating Conservative members. They are not to be underestimated: The China Research Group mounted the first successful rebellion of the new parliament, stopping Huawei from helping to build 5G comms. Led by Tom Tugandhat, the clever and ambitious chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, it boasts big beasts such as David Davis, IDS and Damian Green.
Baker’s Lockdown Sceptics are also not to be ignored. One MP says: “They are tough and well-drilled MPs, including a lot of Spartans. If I was Boris I would be wary of them.”
The Common Sense Group, led by John Hayes, promotes old school right wing views. It has attracted several new MPs in former Labour seats, including Mansfield’s Ben Bradley who caused a furore by attacking free school meal vouchers. A rival teases: “It’s basically Cornerstone which had to be renamed after Keith Simpson dubbed them Tombstone.”
More novel is The Blue Barricade, a WhatsApp Group just for Tory MPs elected in the former “Red Wall” band of seats across the Midlands and North. Many have small majorities but see themselves as having very distinct political priorities from southern MPs in marginal seats. An MP explains: “There’s a world of difference between London marginals, where the demographics are moving against Conservative incumbents, and northern seats where the demographics are changing in our favour. In Sedgefield, Tony Blair used to have a 20k majority, now the Tory MP there has a 3,500 majority. In Chingford, IDS’s majority has shrunk from 18,000 to 1,200.”
Then there is the 2019 Intake group, the 107 MPs who took their seats last year and who aim to copy the “golden” 2010 intake whose promotions and influence made older MPs jealous.
As a classics buff, Boris Johnson might just appreciate the irony that his 80-seat triumph planted the seeds of the rebellions he now faces, by creating a glut of unruly tribes with time on their hands and small majorities to defend.
As a historian he will certainly be aware of what happened to the last Tory leader to enjoy victory on such a scale. Three years after her 1987 triumph, Mrs Thatcher was spat out by a Tory Party that had fractured into a Hydra-headed coalition of rivals and plotters.
Can Boris Johnson avoid her fate? Perhaps. But the Prime Minister will need to be more sure-footed than he has seemed in recent weeks to survive to the next election in 2024.