As the leader of the opposition noted, cheekily, during prime minister’s questions, at least the Conservative backbenchers turned up this week. They were, appropriately as panto season approaches, rather theatrically vocal in their support. They would like to believe, and have the country believe, that BoJo has got his mojo back. It is far from clear that this is the case.
What has become obvious in recent days is that Boris Johnson’s leadership is “in play”. Sir Keir Starmer quoted the prime minister’s own colleagues’ unflattering remarks about his recent performance and the vicious briefings emanating from Downing Street and the Treasury about what has been going wrong. There are reports of letters of no confidence in Boris Johnson being forwarded to the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady.
Well wishers, and others, question whether the prime minister’s team in Downing Street are being sufficiently supportive, whether the pressures of family life are taking a toll on him and if he might be suffering from the lingering effects of Covid-19. Key allies in his own party, and in the media, have been, at best, lukewarm in recent weeks and at worst, hostile. The prime minister’s approval ratings and his party’s popularity have suffered from a succession of avoidable errors and presentational disasters – sleaze, rail, social care and what’s come to be called the “Peppa Pig incident”. He himself admitted that he “drove the car into a ditch” during the Owen Paterson scandal.
Once the political narrative turns to the question of leadership it usually creates a momentum of its own. There is enough speculation, of the unhelpful kind, to ensure that everything the prime minister says and does is framed by the leadership question. This is new, and destabilising. Every time a cabinet minister or Conservative backbencher is interviewed, there will be a question or two about whether the prime minister is “OK” and how he’s going to get himself out of his difficulties.
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Dominic Raab, for example, fell back on another favourite from children’s literature when he called his boss “Tiggerish”, and excused his clowning on the grounds that he’s one of life’s exuberant, boosterish personalities. It wasn’t too ringing an endorsement, having more the feel of an apologetic dad excusing his child’s misbehaviour on a trip to Peppa Pig World.
It used to be said, long ago, that the Conservatives’ “secret weapon” was loyalty; these days they seem to think it is disloyalty. If they feel their leader has turned into an electoral liability, then the plotting is ceaseless and the rumours about “informal” leadership campaigns unstoppable – because such stories are well-founded. It doesn’t matter what a leader may have done for the party, it is always the next election that counts. Indeed, the leaderships of Margaret Thatcher, John Major, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, David Cameron and Theresa May were all blighted by leadership gossip and challenges. Some were real, some were chimerical and some succeeded but they demonstrate the curious addiction the modern party has to factionalism and division.
Mr Johnson, who has done more than his own fair share of plotting against leaders, is now learning how so many of his predecessors felt. The prime minister is in jeopardy.
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