Having won that 80 seat majority for his party in December, it is really quite an achievement by Boris Johnson that so many Tory MPs want to talk to me about whether he’ll stand down – willingly or not – next year.
There is even talk that no-confidence letters are already sitting in Graham Brady’s bottom drawer calling for a leadership contest.Truthfully I don’t take the notion of an organised coup seriously. But what should worry the PM – and what the chief whip should be telling him – is that many of those who were his enthusiastic supporters in last June’s leadership contest say things to me like ‘everything that’s happening is on Boris’, ‘this is all about him’ or, ‘he’s got till next year to turn this around’.
Whereas there was a time when his MPs’ concerns were focused on Dominic Cummings, the point is that Johnson’s influential and controversial aide is no longer his human shield.
When Tory backbenchers moan today, it is about the PM. And Johnson’s critics are not just the usual suspects or those who’ve always mistrusted him or hate Brexit – or at least not just them. Like a deflating child’s paddling pool left out all summer, confidence in the PM is hissing and spluttering away from him. Some of the carping will probably die down. That said, quite a lot has been going wrong. In no particular order, there is:
- The anxiety, acutest in my experience among Brexiters (Remainers gave up hope and therefore the capacity to feel anxiety some time ago), that he is preparing to breach international law to fix a Brexit Withdrawal Agreement that he lauded as ‘great’ only a few months ago (with the addition of David Cameron, every living PM has now said he is doing wrong);
- A shortage of testing capacity that is threatening to see schools and other vital services closed as teachers and other workers are forced off work longer than necessary;
- Fury that the rule of six means families can’t have children on play dates and can’t see all grandparents at once;
- Deep concern that the handling of the Covid-19 crisis has caused a deeper than necessary recession and acute hardship for many;
- Worry that this recession will be compounded by a no-deal end to the UK’s Brexit transition.
None of which is to mention all the other cock-ups of recent months, what Johnson would probably have dubbed in his journalistic days a fandango of fiasco, encompassing the mutant exams algorithm, the failure to protect care homes, the PPE debacle, and so on.
The important point is that for months, Tory MPs gave Johnson the benefit of the doubt on the basis that he has been dealt the hardest hand of any prime minister since (probably) Neville Chamberlain (and we know how that turned out).
No longer.Even Johnson’s fans are beginning to question whether his undoubted political skills are the prime ministerial ones required for this most challenging of ages.
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