After Operation Save Big Dog and Operation Red Meat, today we have Operation Change the Music. As he struggles to save his premiership, Boris Johnson will play what he sees as one of his best tunes – on Covid – by announcing in a Commons statement that most restrictions in England will end on 26 January.
It’s a kitchen sink strategy from a panicky Downing Street that has also seen half-baked announcements rushed out on the BBC licence fee and using the Navy to combat the problem of migrants crossing the Channel in small boats. In both cases, the policies were not even oven-ready, and ministers were left struggling to explain them in the Commons. Surprise, surprise, the measures did not live up to the hype.
Some Tory MPs felt insulted. As one told me: “If they think handing out a few small sweeties to the kids will save him, they are wrong.” The critics rightly viewed the moves as a desperate distraction from the real issue of “partygate”.
Similarly, lockdown sceptics will not be impressed by the lifting of most Covid curbs; many doubt the plan B measures were necessary (and are still sore that they were approved with Labour support to override a rebellion by 100 Tory backbenchers).
Johnson’s survival strategy isn’t working. Johnson’s position worsened after his “hangdog” TV clip on Tuesday; if he was supposed to look contrite, some opponents just saw him as a broken reed.
Whatever Johnson does now, he can’t win. Tory backbenchers are not “waiting for Sue Gray”, the inquiry into “partygate”, as he hoped they would, but actively discuss ousting him. This impatience speaks volumes from a party that would normally operate on the principle of “innocent until proved guilty”. Many MPs know their constituents view Johnson guilty as charged and have reached the same verdict.
Last night Johnson hurried to the Commons to plead with small groups not to pull the trigger in his wood-panelled room behind the Speaker’s chair. The scales have tipped against him because a group of newbies who entered the Commons in 2019, including some red wall MPs, who admitted they owed their seats to him, want him out – and now. Rumours swirl around Westminster that the threshold of 54 needed for a vote of confidence in him as party leader may soon be met. Team Johnson plays down the idea and insists he will survive the storm, but it has to say that, doesn’t it?
Although Theresa May did survive such a confidence vote and limped on for another seven months, ministers believe Johnson would lose one. Hardline Eurosceptics were an easier enemy for May loyalists to spot and a majority of Tory MPs were not ready to change leader. Johnson has several disparate groups coming for him and, with the view hardening that it’s a question of “when, not if”, once a confidence vote is called, his time will almost certainly be up.
The generational split inside the Tory party is very bad for Johnson. The young guns are fiercely independent; many did not expect to win their seats in 2019 and are now determined to do whatever it takes to keep them. The whips’ usual threats and blandishments cut little ice with them. Attacking the rebels as naïve, still wearing political short trousers and bitter about not winning promotions is backfiring on Johnson loyalists; as a result, more letters demanding a confidence vote were submitted today to Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee.
Other Tories are deliberately holding back until after the Gray report so they can go public then, to counteract the inevitable Number 10 spin operation designed to save the PM. Although some want to wait until after the 5 May local elections, MPs with elections in their patches seem more likely to want Johnson removed before the contest so they don’t “sacrifice” councillors and a base that could help them retain their seats at the general election. The bad news for Johnson is that there are elections in 33 metropolitan districts and 17 other authorities in the north and Midlands.
Anxiety levels among Tory MPs in the region will be enhanced by a JL Partners survey for Channel 4 News on Wednesday suggesting the Tories would lose all but three of the 45 red wall seats polled. In a remarkable turnaround, Labour is on 48 per cent and the Tories 37 per cent, below Labour’s 39 per cent for these specific seats at the 2019 election.
No wonder MPs, who only three months ago were praising Johnson to the skies at the Tory conference, have turned against him. Yes, politics is a cruel game, and brutal trade. But so it was when Johnson played a pivotal role in ousting May.
Johnson pretends to “take responsibility” while desperately hoping the Gray inquiry will enable him to shuffle it off on to others. He has convinced himself he is the victim of others’ mistakes. In fact, he is the victim of his own casual relationship with the rules and the truth.
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