- UK PM Boris Johnson’s authority over his own MPs is weakening after a series of blunders.
- One Tory MP described to Insider weeks of ‘own goals’ which have shaken the party.
- Experts said that needs a stronger grip on his government to avoid further dissent.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is battling growing unrest in his party after a series of blunders which have may permanently have damaged his ability to lead.
The prime minister alienated many Conservative backbenchers follow a disastrous few weeks, which included:
- A botched attempt to save Tory MP Owen Paterson from suspension, reviving allegations of corruption and “sleaze” that sank past Conservative administrations.
- A rambling, incoherent speech to business leaders in which he spoke at length about Peppa the cartoon pig.
- A chaotic vote on social-care reforms in which dozens of Tory MPs disobeyed instructions to support the government.
“We’ve been through a torrid three or four weeks,” one Tory MP told Insider. The MP was granted anonymity to speak frankly about the party’s troubles.
“A lot of that, to put it bluntly, was own goals rather than anything more fundamental. That’s the interesting thing about it.”
The MP was one of several dozen who failed to vote this week in favour of Johnson’s controversial social-care plans, despite strict instructions from party leaders to support the measures.
The Conservatives tweaked the plans at the last minute. They still passed through parliament, but by a worryingly small margin of 26 votes given the Tory parliamentary majority of 80.
The debacle has been widely interpreted as further evidence of a Downing Street operation that lacks the capacity for forward-planning or for sensing imminent political danger.
“The failure is one of basic organization,” said Anand Menon, a professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London.
“One of the things that has been quite striking is how things have been sprung on backbenchers at the eleventh hour — you saw that with the amendments to social care legislation.
“From the outside, it gives the impression of being a slightly chaotic Number 10 where there isn’t enough advance planning, there isn’t enough time spent talking to backbenchers about what’s going on, and softening them up in advance.”
The MP Insider spoke with echoed this view, saying their frustration was with Number 10, not the whips or the Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House, who are involved in managing votes and have attracted some blame.
“We know what Boris is like as a character so therefore he needs something around him that compensates and we don’t have that right now,” they said.
Number 10 needed “basic management, organisation, looking ahead at the pitfalls that are coming down the road, the tricky decisions that will have to be made,” they said.
There is genuine anger from many backbench Conservative MPs over recent political blunders, particularly for its attempt to save Tory grandee Owen Paterson from suspension while trying to rip up Commons discipline rules.
The move ultimately resulted in Paterson’s resignation, multiple apologies from ministers, and a dramatic U-turn when it became clear how unpopular the moves were.
One MP, Christian Wakeford, admitted this week to calling Paterson a “cunt” during the voting process, and told Times Radio afterwards his language was a sign of the “quantum of anger in the party.”
Not all agree. One MP elected in 2001 who spoke to Insider downplayed the seriousness of recent events. He said he had seen “mini-crises” such as this come and go, and said that Tory MPs “left the chamber with confidence” after Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday.
Tory discontent is nowhere near great enough for any of Johnson’s political rivals to mount a leadership challenge as things stand. But the question is whether his political fortunes now become better or worse. Part of that will come down to how Johnson’s government fares against Labour in forthcoming polling.
Multiple surveys taken in November suggested that Labour gained significantly on the Conservatives in recent weeks, with some polls putting them ahead of the Tories.
Chris Curtis, a senior research manager for the pollster Opinium, told Insider that one significant risk for Johnson is that a sluggish economy next year and beyond could cost the Conservatives their reputation as the party best-trusted to manage the economy.
“A Conservative party that is viewed as economically incompetent is not an electable Conservative party. They’re not going to win unless they’re viewed as economically competent,” he said.
The MP who described the government’s recent weeks as “torrid” said that there was a risk of the Conservative party losing the political narrative to Labour and never regaining it. “That is the danger,” they said.
The lasting damage of Johnson’s recent blunders may not be with the public but with his backbenchers, however.
To fix that, said Anand Menon, Johnson needs to pay his backbenchers a bit more attention. “Do the hand-shaking, sit in the tea-rooms a bit, talk to the MPs, listen to their concerns.”