‘It feels like a tipping point. Trust in Boris is collapsing. It could be fatal’. So spoke a senior Tory, who hitherto has been a great cheerleader for the Prime Minister. Sunday night’s address to the nation by Boris Johnson won’t, he says, change the perception of Tory MPs that his recent performance has been wholly inadequate. That feeling may in fact be reinforced by Johnson’s choice of simply speaking sombrely down the barrel of a camera lens rather than holding a press conference and taking questions.
The point is that — by design — there was no media challenge after Boris Johnson broadcast, in which he said he wants all adults to have a booster, and that’s he is accelerating the rate of vaccination to a record-breaking one million jabs per day. With the official threat level from Covid-19 nudged up from three to four, because of the rapid rate at which Omicron is surging, there would have been a case for interrogating the usual troika of Johnson, Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, to increase public understanding.
Not now. Why not?
‘He daren’t have a press conference,’ said an ex-minister. ‘Because he knows every question would be about Downing Street Christmas parties and gold wallpaper. And to be clear, that’s his own fault, no one else’s.’
For many MPs, there lies the real damage to the government: the perception that Johnson is less than scrupulous with the Covid rules or the ministerial conduct and that his instinct is to cover up rather than expose, punish or apologise. It means even serious issues like building defences against Omicron are seen by his colleagues and voters through the prism not of what’s best for the UK but whether the PM is trying to deflect from his mistakes and misjudgements.
So collapsing trust in the integrity of the PM risks undermining confidence in policies to protect us from coronavirus, even when those policies are seemingly underwritten by the chief scientific and medical advisers. And if that leads to reduced compliance with guidelines and rules — fewer people going for their boosters, less mask-wearing, and so on — then there would be a vicious transmission link from damaged trust in Johnson to public health.
His colleagues are not in denial.
One erstwhile ally said: ‘In just the past few weeks, the party has moved from adulation, to tolerating him to wondering whether he is up to the job. If there’s another misjudgement or scandal, he’s in real trouble.’
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