Many Conservative MPs have a yearning to be Prime Minister – perhaps most; maybe all – but who would really want to be Boris Johnson now?
His scientific advisers want tighter tiers. Lots of Tory MPs – and Ministers – want looser ones. Many of those with English seats aren’t opposed to tiering in principle, but are furious about it in practice, believing that their constituency is in too restrictive a tier.
Keir Starmer wants anything that will harm the Government. In Brussels, the EU is pushing for a trade deal on its terms rather than his (unsurprisingly). In Edinburgh, Nicola Sturgeon is pressing for a second independence referendum (invariably). The media scrags Ministers for mistakes over Covid without acknowledging achievements.
The Parliamentary Party is experiencing a culture change – partly accrued slowly over time, partly speeded by general election gains. The rise of lobbyocracy, the decline of patronage, the effect of the Covid restrictions on Parliament, the rise of the WhatsApp group: all help to make many MPs as much constituency champions as party animals.
That’s good for individual constituencies, at least in the short-term; not so good for the needs of the country as a whole, and downright bad for the whips and for Johnson himself. It is significant that if the internal Conservative opposition has a leader, he’s the Chairman of the 1922 Committee.
We say all that as a necessary preface to the next point: the Government has handled some aspects of dealing with Covid badly (we await the inevitable inquiry), and the Prime Minister is dealing with Tory MPs less well than he might do.
Part of the problem is structural, which can be corrected (for example, Downing Street needs a senior MP as part of the team to deal with MPs), but part is personal. Like most of the rest of us, Johnson’s weaknesses are a mirror image of his strengths and these, unsurprisingly, are showing up.
What in the best of times comes over as inspiration, bounce, likeability and an unwillingness to be constrained by anything so unpoetic as the facts comes over – in more testing times – as slapdashery, promising the moon, telling his listeners what they want to hear, and carelessness with detail.
We cite only one example, small but telling, from yesterday’s Commons debate. The Prime Minister said that “the virus has been contained, it has not been eradicated”. John Spellar picked him up, and suggested that eradication is all but impossible. The policy aim should be containtment – not eradication. Johnson agreed.
An ambiguity, maybe. But you will see why Conservative MPs are anxious. If the objective of the policy isn’t clear in Johnson’s mind, how can it possibly succeed? To put it bluntly, many of those who voted with the Government yesterday fear that Johnson is making it up as he goes along. (By the way, Matt Hancock has talked of “suppressing” the virus. Suppression is not the same as containment.)
The Government raised expectations yesterday that many MPs will find their constituency moved out of Tier Three and into Tier Two by December 17. “Will the Prime Minister commit to a more local tiering system, so that the hard work of my constituents is rewarded?” Mark Jenkinson, Workington’s MP, asked him yesterday.
“Yes, indeed,” Johnson replied – and he bent over backwards to reassure Greg Clark and Edward Leigh, who intervened on him to make the case for their seat moving down a tier. “We want to be as granular as possible as we go forward,” the Prime Minister also said.
Keir Starmer suggested that Tory MPs are being played. “I look across the House to Members who think that perhaps, in two weeks, their area is going to drop down a tier just before Christmas. Let us see,” he said. And indeed we will, one way or the other.
The sunlit uplands view is that the vaccines will duly arrive, Covid will diminish, a Brexit trade deal will be struck that suits Britain, the Government will settle down, and the exceptional circumstances of the virus will be seen in retrospect to have marked the high point of rebellion. And Johnson’s approval ratings will move up.
The rainswept downlands take is that the turbulence of the Parliamentary Party – of which all those new research groups are a sign – indicate that Ministers will have difficulty in getting through measures vital to Downing Street, even with a majority of 80. For example: would Tory MPs vote through big tax rises?
55 Conservative votes against the Government last night, plus more abstentions, was the biggest Covid-related revolt so far. It was enough to have wiped out the majority had all the other parties opposed the provisions. We would put it in the medium range of expectations – smaller than it might have been but too large for comfort to Number One.
Our members’ panel may feel the sympathy for the Prime Minister’s position that we expressed earlier. If so, it is not enough to rescue him from a negative rating. Fifty-four per cent of it believes that he is handling the virus badly. That’s a bit of a rally from 63 per cent last month, which marked the lowest total yet.
This month’s is the second lowest. Thirty-nine per cent of respondents believe that Government is dealing with Covid well; 53 per cent badly. Those figures are almost exactly the same as last month. Meanwhile, 77 per cent support Sunak’s economic plans – which is both an overwhelming majority and a new low.
Last month, the Chancellor scored 83 per cent. That’s not really a big enough difference to make a fuss about, but it may be that the Autumn Statement worried a few respondents at the margins.