Katy Balls

Backbench anger at Boris Johnson is at fever pitch

Backbench anger at Boris Johnson is at fever pitch
(Photo: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor)
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Boris Johnson has had a chaotic 48 hours. After a Downing Street press conference video leaked which saw aides joke about a No. 10 Christmas party, the Prime Minister has lost a senior aide, faced new allegations about illegal parties, announced new Covid restrictions, had the electoral commission rule that his refurbishment of the Downing Street flat broke electoral law and – last but not least – welcomed a baby daughter.

Of all these developments, it’s the double whammy of questions over No. 10 staff breaching the rules, combined with the decision to bring in new rules for the general public, that has the potential to cause the Prime Minister the biggest political headache.

The announcement of new Covid rules has gone down like a cup of cold sick with Tory MPs, with several openly questioning how they can tell their constituents with a straight face to follow the rules.

While Johnson was addressing the public about the new restrictions in a press conference, Sajid Javid was being mauled in the Commons chamber. The Health Secretary faced calls of ‘resign’ as he announced the introduction of vaccine passports. Given Labour MPs have suggested they will support the bulk of the measures, Johnson ought to be able to pass them when the restrictions come to a vote next week. Yet he may also see the biggest Tory rebellion to date.

The anger on the backbenches is clear, with Mark Harper asking: ‘why should people listen to the Prime Minister’s instructions to follow the rules when people inside 10 Downing Street don’t do so?’ and others coming out to slam vaccine passports. Members of the payroll are also privately unhappy and questioning whether they can really vote for these measures. Ask a Tory MP or adviser how they feel about the current situation and the responses include: ‘Fed up on every level’, ‘we’re nearing the end’, ‘this is a clown show’, ‘wtf’ and: ‘just embarrassing’.

Of course, this is not the first time Tory MPs have expressed anger at Johnson and No. 10. Yet this time around, there is a growing sense that after a tough few weeks Johnson is in a more perilous position than previously. The questions over Downing Street parties are only increasing and the Prime Minister now faces questions about whether he lied about funding for the No. 10 flat.

What’s more, if the trajectory the UK government is now on with Omicron means more measures as cases increase, Johnson will find himself in a similar position to last year before the vaccine rollout – where he was at odds with his party on Covid measures. Only this time it will be even harder for him. Last year his response to winter restrictions was to focus on the vaccines – which have now already been rolled out. It’s not clear what his solution is now. And, in the period when Covid hasn’t dominated the news, Johnson has struggled to make progress on domestic reform and had a series of self-forced errors such as the Owen Paterson row.

Is Johnson in imminent danger? Not yet. But things could get worse still. It’s worth keeping an eye on next week’s North Shropshire by-election. A long-time safe Tory seat, Conservatives are increasingly worried that the Liberal Democrats are making significant inroads. If there is a surprise upset there, it would be a nightmare ending to the year for a beleaguered Prime Minister.