Boris Johnson has had so many dire weeks as prime minister, Conservative MPs at Westminster sometimes appear punch drunk. “It’s driving me bonkers,” said one veteran Tory MP. “We’re in one hell of a mess.”
This week’s wave of bad news was particularly grim for Mr Johnson. His latest manoeuvres on Brexit led to a full-scale rebellion by Conservative MPs, and widespread recriminations over his plan to break international law.
Mr Johnson’s threat to override his Brexit treaty’s commitments to Northern Ireland somehow managed to unite US presidential candidate Joe Biden, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and pro-Brexit former Conservative leader Michael Howard in condemnation.
Adding to the sense of disarray, Amal Clooney, the high-profile lawyer, quit on Friday as the government’s envoy on media freedom in protest at Mr Johnson’s “lamentable” decision to violate the Brexit treaty.
Meanwhile Britain’s coronavirus testing system has been overwhelmed by demand as the prospect of new nationwide restrictions to control Covid -19 — and an autumn of rising unemployment — loom.
Although Mr Johnson has staunch defenders among recently elected Tory MPs, some backbenchers feel estranged from their prime minister and bewildered by what is going on.
On Monday night, as more than 20 Conservative MPs prepared to defy Mr Johnson and his Brexit plan, the prime minister called some of them into his House of Commons office to promise to put it right. Concessions to the rebels followed less than 48 hours later.
“An 80 [seat Commons] majority suddenly does not look as bullet proof as they might have thought,” said one senior Conservative MP. This was the week when Mr Johnson and his team realised they might have to start listening to parliament.
At the heart of Mr Johnson’s problems is a mutual sense of distrust, and sometimes loathing, between Tory MPs and 10 Downing Street.
“The parliamentary party always dislikes the centre, it was the same under David [Cameron] and Theresa [May],” said one influential MP. “The difference now is that Downing Street doesn’t give a fuck in return.”
Charles Walker, vice-chair of the 1922 committee of backbench Conservative MPs, went public on this broken relationship in a passionate speech in the Commons: “If you keep whacking a dog, don’t be surprised when it bites you back.”
Mr Johnson’s allies argued that Tory MPs chose him as their leader because he was a “winner” not because he was a consummate party manager. “He’s never been a House of Commons man. He’s never hung out in the tea-room,” said one supporter.
But the prime minister’s remoteness from his own MPs — summed up by an ill-fated Zoom call last week with Conservative MPs in which his internet connection failed and he refused to take any questions — could become increasingly problematic in the months ahead.
Mr Johnson’s promise that he would deliver a trade deal with the EU is seen now as a key test of his competence by many Tory MPs. Some fear that he could squander the chance of an agreement.
Allies of Mr Johnson insist he genuinely wants a trade deal and that his controversial internal market bill — which would override the Brexit treaty on trading arrangements between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland — was an attempt to “push back” against an aggressive EU negotiating team.
But coronavirus remains the biggest test for Mr Johnson. While the prime minister is attacked over the country’s inadequate testing system and for failing to get a grip on Covid-19, many Tory MPs with a libertarian streak also hate the restrictions on personal liberty he is introducing.
More battles loom. Tory MPs in the green shires are increasingly agitated by Mr Johnson’s legislative plan to reform the planning system in England. “We are being told the government is going to build 300,000 homes a year whether we like it or not,” said one former cabinet minister. “Fine — but we still have to vote for it.”
And the possibility of chancellor Rishi Sunak introducing big tax rises for higher earners — to pay the bills for coronavirus and to fund extra spending in “left-behind” areas — have further raised Conservative hackles.
One Tory official who has worked with Mr Johnson in government said his problems were mainly due to those around him in Number 10 — notably chief adviser Dominic Cummings, who ran the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
“Boris won the referendum and the election thanks to the Vote Leave cabal,” said the official. “He sees them as his conduit to power but there’s a risk their deficiencies will undermine his whole government.” Privately many Conservative MPs want Mr Cummings — not Mr Johnson — out of Downing Street.
The mood is febrile. Some Tory MPs believe recent speculation that Mr Johnson has not fully recovered from his bout of Covid-19 — strenuously denied by Number 10 — and will walk out before the next election.
His allies insisted that was rubbish. “He will be determined to prove them wrong,” said one.
But even some of Mr Johnson’s supporters are worried. “I don’t understand what’s happened to Boris,” said one. “He now seems to be a shadow of his ebullient self.”
The next general election may still be four years away, but there is likely to be a reckoning for Mr Johnson’s premiership long before then. “If necessary, we know what to do,” said one longstanding MP, referring to the Conservative party’s tendency to regicide.
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