SIMON WALTERS: Lockdown parties, sleaze allegations, Peppa Pig and Tory revolts – if Boris doesn’t move to sort out his dysfunctional administration, he has little chance of fighting the next election
Outrage over parties at Number 10 during the Covid lockdown, sleaze allegations and Tory revolts have sent Boris Johnson’s popularity ratings tumbling. Daily Mail assistant editor Simon Walters has spoken to many of those who know the Prime Minister best to find out how, or perhaps if, they think he can recover politically in the New Year.
Tory MPs calling on Boris Johnson to ‘get a grip’ of a Downing Street machine that has looked chaotic in recent weeks should be aware of a telling incident.
Mr Johnson had caused a furore by performing one of his trademark political stunts: departing from a pre-prepared speech and ad libbing.
The audience lapped it up.
But, while he may have received a standing ovation, Mr Johnson made a hash of the policy he was supposed to be announcing.
The media proclaimed it another Boris ‘gaffe’ and an aide had to clear up the mess.
Later, I’m told, when that aide cast him an accusing look, Mr Johnson said: ‘There’s no point saying anything, I’m not going to change.’
But, in the last few days I have spoken to more than 20 Tory MPs, ministers, officials and aides, many of whom have known or worked closely with Mr Johnson going back two decades, and virtually all agree on one thing: if he does not move to sort out his dysfunctional administration he has little chance of fighting the next election, which could be just two years away.
Rows over No10 parties, the first serious signs of Cabinet dissent over potential Covid restrictions, plus a mass Tory backbench revolt and a series of sleaze allegations have all led to speculation that would have seemed unthinkable less than three months ago: a possible leadership challenge.
Outrage over parties at Number 10 during the Covid lockdown, sleaze allegations and Tory revolts have sent Boris Johnson’s popularity ratings tumbling, SIMON WALTERS writes
Strains with Chancellor Rishi Sunak and newly appointed Foreign Secretary Liz Truss were clearly visible at this week’s Cabinet crisis meeting on Covid
And most of these problems can be traced back to Johnson and his team at No10.
Of course, part of Johnson’s complex political character thrives on chaos because he knows he’s at his best when he seizes victory from the jaws of defeat at the last moment, with one simple wisecrack or a Churchillian performance.
Indeed, he weathered a similarly disastrous initial spell as London Mayor in 2008, with mistakes, sleaze allegations and resignations. But he turned it round.
And he did so by bringing in some trusted big hitters to do the political heavy-lifting behind the scenes, leaving him to do what he does best, spreading his Boris ‘boosterism’ around the capital.
However, now that he’s Prime Minister, eccentric performances like his recent address to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) – in which he started talking about a recent trip to Peppa Pig World – run the risk of giving the impression that he sees the crowd-pleasing antics that made him popular as mayor will do the same in a much more serious role.
And in truth, they won’t.
One of his team was said to be taken aback when, after scanning a copy of the CBI speech prepared for him, unimpressed Mr Johnson gave a three word reply: ‘Where’s the jokes?’
Certainly, Boris without the humour wouldn’t be Boris. But in the words of one of his former campaign chiefs: ‘Becoming a laughing stock PM is no joke.’
Certainly, Boris without the humour wouldn’t be Boris. But in the words of one of his former campaign chiefs: ‘Becoming a laughing stock PM is no joke’
According to some sources, the recent resignation of Brexit negotiator Lord Frost was connected, in part, to concerns about Mrs Johnson’s eco-campaigning influence on policies, such as a drive to net-zero carbon emmissions
Paradoxically, while refusing to appoint the kind of strong figures who would make No10 work more efficiently, Mr Johnson, who, unlike some of his predecessors like notoriously moody Gordon Brown or thin-skinned John Major, rarely displays real anger – rather he’s said to stage mock temper tantrums to vent his frustration.
‘He stomps round shouting “I am king here!” or “I am the fuhrer here! Why can’t I get this done?”’ an aide said. ‘He is clowning around, but the frustration is real.’
And the root of this frustration?
Some say he is suffering because, unlike in his triumphant mayoral days when he had a close-knit team of advisers, he has no comparable personal bond with any of his much bigger No10 staff, most of whom are closer in age to his wife Carrie, 24 years his junior.
One MP said: ‘They don’t know him well enough to give him what he needs. He doesn’t mind in the slightest if you shout at him to tuck his shirt him or pull his trousers up. But no one in Downing Street does that and it shows.’
Some members of his inner circle are considering trying to persuade him to order a shake up of No10 in the New Year.
Their ideas include replacing his ineffectual chief of staff Dan Rosenfield and Cabinet Secretary Simon Case with individuals who wield greater authority.
‘When Dan and Simon walk into a room barely anyone notices, let alone pays attention,’ on Downing Street insider said.
And if it were not for the fact that Mr Johnson carried out a recent Cabinet reshuffle in September, one or two of his top team would likely face the risk of the axe, too.
A Johnson loyalist said he is ‘spitting blood’ at the way he believes Chief Whip Mark Spencer and Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg talked him into the doomed attempt to get former minister Owen Paterson off the hook over corruption allegations in early November.
A Johnson loyalist said he is ‘spitting blood’ at the way he believes Chief Whip Mark Spencer and Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg (pictured) talked him into the doomed attempt to get former minister Owen Paterson off the hook over corruption allegations in early November
Those close to the Prime Minister say Rees-Mogg is the ‘anonymous’ Cabinet Minister widely referred to as being on the brink of quitting over potential new Covid restrictions.
Mr Johnson’s relations with fellow Brexit cheerleader Mr Rees-Mogg are said to have reached such a low point that one person who works with Mr Johnson observed cryptically: ‘The question is: will Jacob walk before he is pushed?’
Strains with Chancellor Rishi Sunak and newly appointed Foreign Secretary Liz Truss were clearly visible at this week’s Cabinet crisis meeting on Covid.
One Cabinet Minister said: ‘Rishi was furious at plans for new curbs and tried to stay quiet but was forced to say a few words by the PM. Liz said she had another call and disappeared. They don’t want to upset [Tory] MPs in case there is a leadership contest. Shame on them.’
A senior aide said: ‘The Cabinet meeting was a watershed. It is the first time the Cabinet stood up to Boris – and he blinked first.’
Some say structural changes are also needed to make government policies more coherent and for links to be restored with wayward Tory MPs, who complain they never see Mr Johnson in the Commons tea room any more.
‘He is in his Downing Street bunker, surrounded by teenagers who have more power than backbench MPs with 40 years’ experience,’ complained one grandee.
Mr Johnson’s allies are also keenly aware of the need to tread gently around Carrie, who recently became a mother for the second time, and is a political force in her own right with links to government aides and ministers.
According to some sources, the recent resignation of Brexit negotiator Lord Frost was connected, in part, to concerns about Mrs Johnson’s eco-campaigning influence on policies, such as a drive to net-zero carbon emmissions.
Tory traditionalists are also uneasy about her strong support of controversial gender and trans issues.
One of Mr Johnson’s best known advisers told me: ‘Boris needs a functioning Downing Street operation and a clear Conservative agenda instead of whimsical ideas and erratic pronouncements.’
And, the adviser added, the Covid crisis has made it all the more vital: ‘In government, competence breeds competence – even more so at times of national uncertainty.’