Boris Johnson is feeling the heat – and Labour looks ready to keep applying it

Leading the country is a tough job, but the prime minister is swiftly losing his lustre

Cathy Newman
Thursday 18 November 2021 18:21

Keir Starmer brands Boris Johnson ‘a coward, not a leader’ amid sleaze row

It’s 11 years since Labour lost power, and two weeks since the sleaze scandal first erupted. And finally, the government is facing some serious opposition.

It reminds me of my days as a newspaper correspondent in the political lobby when the Conservatives learnt, painfully and slowly for them, how to oppose the Tony Blair/Gordon Brown government. Then, as now, there were impromptu press conferences, dossiers of “facts” about damaging stories, and a nimble use of parliamentary tactics and platforms to turn up the pressure.

In government now, the Tories aren’t used to being challenged in a similar way, and it shows.

No 10 might have thought that by announcing yet another U-turn on MPs’ second jobs they might kibosh the press conference Sir Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner fronted to announce their own tougher policy on the subject. But then Labour’s leader put in what MPs on both sides of the house judged his most robust performance in Prime Minister’s Questions, leaving Johnson sounding evasive, resorting to a poor pun, and earning himself no fewer than four rebukes from the speaker of the house, Lindsay Hoyle.

And where once Labour might have been content with that outing, the party then followed up with what it called a “dossier of Conservative sleaze and corruption”, highlighting the scale of Covid-related contracts awarded to firms with Tory links. To cap it all, in an opposition day debate, Rayner managed to lure the health minister, Gillian Keegan, into an admission her department couldn’t locate the minutes of a key phone call about a Covid-19 contract awarded to Randox after it employed Owen Paterson as a consultant.

So even Conservative MPs (some of whom didn’t bother turning up to the Commons yesterday) privately suggest this was a good day for Labour. We asked dozens to come on Channel 4 News last night: none wanted to talk. But their sullen demeanour at the 1922 committee - where Johnson turned his characteristically flamboyant language on himself with a metaphor about crashing the car into a ditch on a clear road - spoke volumes.

Of course, Tories soothe themselves with the knowledge they still have a working majority of nearly 80. But first in Prime Minister’s Questions, and then later on in front of the liaison committee, this looked like a PM who might be starting to lose his lustre.

Johnson appeared to float a change in policy over first cyber-flashing, and then Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Maybe one or both were deliberate. But his apology for failing to wear a mask in Hexham Hospital contradicted No 10’s repeated claims he followed the rules at all times.

Exactly a fortnight after he whipped his MPs to vote on pausing punishment for Paterson’s “egregious” breach of lobbying rules, and after performing more twists and turns than a kid on a helter-skelter, Johnson’s self-flagellation at the liaison committee – “I think it was a total mistake”; “I may well have been mistaken”; “Do I regret that decision? I certainly do” – simply completed his humiliation.

I wrote last week that Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell used to have a rule that if a story made the headlines for eleven days straight, his political paymasters were in trouble. I reckon we’re now on day 16 of this one.

No wonder then that, struggling with a hoarse voice, Johnson looked and sounded tired. And the longer Labour sets the agenda on sleaze, the more his government risks appearing tired too.

The flagship policy of “levelling-up” is in danger of unravelling as the government shelves the HS2 extension to Leeds and a new Northern Powerhouse Rail line today. Conservative MPs are starting to ask, now Brexit is done, what is Johnson all about?

His former chief adviser Dominic Cummings has said that within a month of the 2019 election, Johnson was "bored with the PM job and wanted to get back to what he loves while shaking down the publishers for some more cash". Quizzed further, the new PM had this honest verdict on the role: “It's like getting up every morning pulling a 747 down the runway…I love writing, I love it, I want to write my Shakespeare book”.

No one denies being prime minister is a tough job. But there’s plenty who want it. Sir Keir would no doubt be delighted to tow that 747 up Downing Street. He’s not taxi-ing down the runway quite yet, but for the first time Labour MPs are at least contemplating buying a ticket.

Cathy Newman presents Channel 4 News, weekdays, at 7pm

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