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Lobby journalists attempting to find out what’s happening in a 1922 Committee meeting sometimes press their ears to the wall of Committee Room 14, where the event takes place.

Trying to assess what Tory MPs make of the Government’s strategy for easing the lockdown is a bit like doing so.  Like straining to hear a sum of muffled noise, the odd clear sentence and the occasional shout.

But this isn’t to say that one can make nothing out at all.  The background to our latest ring-round features outstanding opinion ratings for the Conservatives, which are helping to buttress backbench and ministerial morale.

Furthermore, that Parliament is virtual has the effect of diffusing protest: there have been few clearly dissenting voices speaking out from the backbenches so far.  And as readers will see from the below, Tory MPs are willing to cut Johnson a lot of slack.

That said, there is good reason for Downing Street and the whips to be concerned.  The simple fact is that if imposing lockdown was controversial and difficult, easing it will be much more so.  The Government’s new strategy demands fine judgements; being able to deliver its plan operationally; internal disciple and competence, keeping ahead of public opinion, having the credibility to lead it and, as ever, a big slice of luck.

Reading all the feedback below, three undertows are washing around.  First, exasperation at the bungled launch of the new phase, with guidance emerging the best part of 24 hours, or later, after the Prime Minister’s statement.  That will already have waned.

What won’t so much is a second factor – namely, a mass of questions about how the new plan will work. By these, we don’t mean evidently stupid ones asked by clever people on Twitter (such as what “stay alert” means).

Rather, we mean a thousand enquiries about whether the planned easings will happen on time, what will happen to lives and livelihoods if they don’t, and above all for how long lockdown can practicably be sustained.

Above all, more backbenchers are questioning Ministers’ competence.  The unhappiness about the messy launch, the briefing against Hancock, and the pre-guidance confusion may fade, but traces of it will linger.

This will be especially so among MPs worried that the Government, for all the horrendous circumstances it finds itself in, has made at least three shifts in strategy so far.

And contrary to the Prime Minister’s suggestion that we’ve reached the summit, the really difficult part of the climb may only just be starting.

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MP representing a Northern seat

“I think the Prime Minister should have held his speech back until the full document could be published alongside it. This would have provided some much-needed clarity, and avoided handing the media free hits such as the swift backtracking over whether you can meet both your parents at once. Likewise, if quarantine was useful, why wasn’t it done six weeks ago? I think a better approach is testing temperatures, as they have in Singapore and Hong Kong for years. Some of the other announcements, such as letting golf and tennis resume, are simply common sense, but we need more action on what precautionary measures are needed before public transport can be used safely and businesses such as hairdressers can reopen. We also need a more flexible furlough scheme with the flexibility to let businesses partially reopen on a skeleton staff.”

MP representing a Midlands seat

“Our starting point is far from ideal, but the Government can only make the best of the situation. The advice is more nuanced than previously but not particularly confusing, and recognises that the only way out of this situation is a gradual easing of restrictions over time. However, there does need to be a stronger emphasis on getting the economy moving as quickly as possible, and I have been disquieted to see the way in which we have seen such an appalling death toll despite all but shutting down the economy. One wonders whether the Swedish approach may have served Britain better.”

MP representing a Southern seat

“My overall view is that the Prime Minister’s having to exercise the the judgement of Solomon. If he lifts the restrictions too early and there’s a virulent second outbreak, the public will never forgive us – after everything they’ve been through. If he runs it too long, there’ll be no economy left to rescue. So there’s the dilemma. And you can’t reach for the “How to come out of Covid lockdown manual”. No such publication exists. So what’s he doing? He’s proceeding cautiously and I realise that has an economic cost, but on balance I think he’s got it about right. What was good about the broadcast was that he actually began to lay out a road map.”

MP representing a Northern seat

“Boris Johnson’s been for quite a while away from the people – and he’s a great communicator, and he’s usually got his finger right on the pulse – I feel, and certainly the immediate avalanche of responses from usual Boris supporters (not Conservatives, but Boris supporters; people who lent us their vote in the last election)… he’s lost them. He lost them last night. Unless it is changed, unless we do a volte-face or today in his parliamentary statement we’re able to give people clarity and reassurance, it’s going to have an impact in the Wall.”

MP representing a Midlands seat

“I thought it was completely appropriate for the Prime Minister to give the country a bit of a heads up in terms of direction of travel, and then subsequently follow up the following day by allowing parliament to do what its job is… We’ve had one or two emails, nothing great so far, from constituents just asking for some clarification, but then again from my personal point of view I hope people don’t get into the position where they expect the Government to be so prescriptive as to tell them what they should do in every situation. We need to trust that people are sensible, generally speaking, and we need to allow a degree of common sense to prevail.”

MP representing a Southern seat

“It is unfortunate that details of the revised guidance have been piecemeal in coming through and some measures appear so rushed.  Opening up everything from businesses to beaches in a two day window is complicated, and given we have all been sat at home for weeks, I am not sure why guidance was not more detailed or why it is rushed for this Wednesday.  Tourism regions are deeply troubled at the unlimited travel, particularly to regions with low levels of infection, without releasing any data or scientific guidance about why these journeys are now safe for people moving from areas of high infection to low infection.  The increased exercise is warmly welcomed – but remain unsure why we as MPs have to sit at home unable to effectively do our jobs yet encourage others to return to work – we need to return to Westminster now travel is unlimited – even if we have to all go for a jog round Parliament Square when we get there!”

MP representing a Northern seat

“Clarity has to be the number one message [going forward], but reassurance as well. It’s one thing to say “you can go back to work and your kids can go back to school”, but they’re still asking whether or not it’s safe to do so. The number of people who’ve told me they’re not sending their kids to school until September; we need to offer them that reassurance, and we can only do so by being clear and frank with them… It could have been so much better and achieved so much more, and unfortunately it just seemed to miss the pulse and the mood in the room. I don’t think it was necessarily the content, it was the lack of clarity regarding it.”

MP representing a Midlands seat

“The communications were bungled. The broadcast should have been made at the same times as the details were published. So there was confusion that could have been avoided. I had people emailing may who had been furloughed asking if they were supposed to go back to work or not. But I agree with the Government being cautious. There are advantages in being able to wait to see what happens in other countries. The problem with being cautious is that it will mean some unpopular decisions later on when we have run out of money. Paying out
extra for Universal Credit was fine but taking it back down again will cause anger.”

MP representing a Southern seat

“I think Boris was actually rather brilliant yesterday because funnily enough I’d just watched that Gary Oldman Churchill film again, and was struck by that bit where Churchill is trying to find his voice and is told to be truthful with the people. There isn’t an easy way out of this. If the hospitals begin to be overwhelmed you begin to feel civilisation coming to an end. The thing about Boris’s performance is he’s not varnishing it and he’s not pretending it’s simple. My anxiety is he’s having to choose factions in the Cabinet. As for that briefing in The Mail on Sunday, it’s disgusting behaviour. Loose talk costs lives.”

MP representing a Northern seat

“I think it landed all right.  But there was a lot of correspondence overnight, and much depends on whether Ministers can now answer some of the questions that people like my constituents are putting to them.  There’s a strong feeling among the colleagues that the briefing over the weekend against Hancock was totally ridiculous, unnecessary, puerile.  As for getting back to something near normal, the Prime Minister basically said that we will try to do it in a bit, which was an attempt to fudge, but whether it works or not we will see.”

MP representing a Midlands seat

“People have been clamouring for clarity about when we’re going to come out of lockdown. This was a suitably calm approach to providing a roadmap, a phased approach to withdrawal that was broadly sensible. But saying that people should go back to work today, before publishing the details of the sectors that should go back to work, was slightly unfortunate. Construction companies in my patch have in fact being going back to work in the last two weeks, and manufacturing companies have been making preparations to start from the beginning of June. People do need a bit of time to prepare.”

MP representing a Southern seat

“It was a good general statement from the PM. It was a clear general message that we are winning but that we haven’t won yet. We can have the confidence to take small steps. It is reasonable to make progress conditional on infection rate not creeping up. But the other problem is public opinion. I’m amazed by the number who want the Government to control every movement of their lives. People wanting to dob their neighbours in it. All these people emailing me asking can they do this, can they do that. Why don’t they grow up and take some personal
responsibility? That means the Government leading not following public opinion. We do need to get rid of the furlough scheme paying people not to work who could work – but maintain help for people who really
are prevented from working, like publicans.”

MP representing a Northern seat

“I’m absolutely aghast.  It was a terrible mistake not making the announcement in the Commons, which would have allowed the accompanying documents to be released simultaneously. Colleagues are pretty horrified. The whole business also shows why you need a real Parliament for us all to get together. If we had one now, I’d be able to hold meetings in my office, or at someone else’s, with another ten people who could sit down and go through it all together. Having said that, the Government’s had to pull the vote on releasing prisoners due on Tuesday, which is a triumph for MPs’ Whatsapp groups. There is a group of more economically-minded MPs who are alarmed by this.”

MP representing a Midlands seat

“I think as far as it goes it’s fine. We need a bit of luck in handling this dreadful disease, because the longer the lockdown continues the more serious the economic and mental health damage will be to the fabric of society. Vital though the R factor is, we’ve got to get moving or we’ll all go bonkers.”

MP representing a Southern seat

“Broadly speaking I thought it was rather good, because actually it did set out the complexity and the inability to give categorical answers to really complex questions. But he didn’t follow it up by saying all the details will now be on the Government website. So he’s now playing catch-up again, which is frustrating. Like the Americans during the Second World War, he does the right thing after all else has failed.”

MP representing a Midlands seat

“I thought it was fine. I think it was pretty good, actually. I’m not usually that impressed by that kind of thing. But I came away from that thinking it’s clear and good. I watched Twitter going mental, but I don’t get this ‘the public are very confused’ thing. I think it’s just a natural desire to move on. People are getting frustrated that their scenarios are not being fulfilled. I asked my mother what she thought of it. She said ‘Yeah, it seems fine,’ which is high praise from her. She’s annoyed with Sturgeon for keeping on gazumping him.”

MP representing a Southern seat

“Of course Boris Johnson is under a lot of pressure, so I am very sympathetic to him on a personal level. But I would like to see the lockdown be eased much faster. There should be more focus on care homes, a more targeted approach to defeat the virus. The rest of us need to get back to work. When it comes to the main productive workforce we need to get production back up urgently. To allow that we need to get children back to school. People are simply not grasping the seriousness to the economy. It might be that many want to keep the lockdown going – yet those same people won’t thank the Government for the delay if we go all bust.”

MP representing a Midlands seat

“I don’t know where my colleagues will settle.  Boris is trying to walk a tightrope, and he’s not actually announced a very big change in policy.  Despite the row with Sturgeon and the Welsh, the actual guidance isn’t really very different among the four nations, and lots of the colleagues are having a go at Blackford on the MPs’ WhatsApp groups.  I hate to be negative but my Facebook has certainly gone negative for the first time.  It’s hard to know where voters are going to settle, but everything’s certainly going to get a lot hotter.”

277 comments for: An undertow of doubt about the Government’s competence is washing through the Conservative Parliamentary Party

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