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Boris Johnson on Friday spent the second anniversary of his election as Conservative leader in splendid isolation at Chequers, confined by Covid rules and surveying an increasingly treacherous political landscape.
Most prime ministers entering midterm would relish the kind of solid opinion poll lead enjoyed by the Conservatives — YouGov last week put Johnson’s party 13-points ahead of Labour — but problems are mounting.
In the last week before the House of Commons’ summer break, Johnson was forced to isolate at his Buckinghamshire grace-and-favour mansion, after coming into contact with his health secretary, Sajid Javid, who has coronavirus.
His physical separation from his party symbolises a gap opening up between the prime minister and some of his party, who worry over his style of government, his handling of the Covid crisis, and big economic decisions to come.
“People are a little bit jittery,” said one cabinet minister, reflecting the Tory mood two years after Johnson beat Jeremy Hunt to seize the Tory crown. A day later on July 24 2019 he replaced Theresa May as prime minister.
Johnson is politically exposed after he lifted most remaining Covid-19 restrictions on July 19, his Downing Street operation is misfiring and some Tory MPs fear that under the high-spending prime minister the Conservatives risk becoming a “high-tax party”.
Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser, told the BBC this week: “He doesn’t have a plan, he doesn’t know how to be prime minister.” Many Tory MPs despise Cummings, but some share the adviser’s critique and want Johnson to prove him wrong.
Johnson points to his completion of Brexit and the successful rollout of the country’s vaccination programme among his highlights as prime minister. His approval ratings outstrip those of his Labour rival, Sir Keir Starmer, but support for him among Tory MPs is far from rock solid.
One Conservative MP, said: “This summer will be the first real period of reflection for many and when they look to Downing Street I think most will feel distinctly nervous about both the lack of leadership from the prime minister and some of the personalities and personnel he has surrounded himself with.”
A senior Whitehall official described the mood in the civil service as “tired and fractious”, warning of tough months ahead of trying to deliver policy without enough money — budgets have been strained by Covid — and with key staff isolating because of the virus.
“Autumn is looming ominously ahead,” the official added, predicting a “grim” public spending round as ministers fight for scarce resources, a fourth wave of coronavirus and fearful staff reluctant to come back to the office.
Steve Baker, a senior Tory MP, fears the prime minister has lost his nerve and is now looking to introduce Covid-19 restrictions only days after he scrapped them. Johnson has not ruled out another lockdown.
Ministers this week suggested that Covid passports could be required in the autumn not just in nightclubs but also at sports events, music venues and business gatherings. Baker has threatened to boycott the Conservative party conference in the autumn if he has to show health certification.
“Even once colleagues are refreshed by a break, it’s difficult to see how they won’t be increasingly discontented with the government’s authoritarianism, especially as our poll lead begins to evaporate as our voters are hit hard,” he said.
Johnson’s Covid strategy has placed him in a doubly dangerous position. Lifting restrictions on July 19 — dubbed “freedom day” in the Tory press — while cases were rising was at odds with polls showing the public wanted a much more cautious approach.
If he is forced to reintroduce restrictions he will be blamed by the public for taking them off in the first place, while libertarian Conservative MPs will turn on a leader who once claimed the road out of lockdown was “irreversible”.
If Johnson tries to force through his Covid passport scheme he could see Tory rebels line up with Labour to defeat him, while other parliamentary perils lie ahead when the Commons returns on September 6.
The prime minister is desperate to fulfil a pledge he made on the Downing Street steps two years ago to “fix the crisis in social care once and for all”, but finding the estimated £10bn needed will again cause Tory strains.
Johnson had hoped to announce the plan this week — until he was confined to Chequers — with ministers expected to back a 1 per cent rise in national insurance contributions to pay for it.
But Britain already has the highest overall tax burden since the 1960s and Tory MPs say that groups are forming at Westminster to stop the Conservatives from morphing into a “high tax party”.
In a sign of philosophical tensions, business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said on Thursday: “I don’t see how we could increase national insurance.” Colleagues said Kwarteng was unaware that this approach might soon be official policy.
Starmer has indicated Labour could oppose the idea — NI is not paid by the elderly or on dividends or rents — and could join low-tax Tories to defeat it. Johnson has shelved a final decision until the autumn.
The autumn holds other dangers. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, is fretting over the impact of future interest rate rises on a UK debt burden approaching 100 per cent of gross domestic product.
Tensions between the spendthrift prime minister and the fiscally conservative chancellor are already building, Tory officials say.
Even a comfortable poll lead can be a blessing and a curse. Politics is often about momentum and if, as Baker suspects, the polls turn against Johnson, it could breathe life into Starmer’s moribund Labour leadership.
David Gauke, a former Tory cabinet minister, said: “It might get very tough. There’s an appetite for the political narrative to move on: are the Tories struggling? Is Labour making a comeback?”