Katy Balls

Boris Johnson’s backbench problem

Boris Johnson's backbench problem
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After spending Tuesday afternoon queuing in a socially distanced conga line across the parliamentary estate, many MPs found themselves in a bad mood. Even Conservative MPs who backed the government's plan to change to a system of socially distanced physical voting were complaining. Speaking to Coffee House afterwards, Tory MPs complained the process was 'humiliating', a 'clusterf--k' and most kindly 'a work in progress'. Despite this, the system is here to stay for the time being.

However, yesterday's episode just adds to a growing sense of unease among Tory MPs over the government's direction. As I say in this week's magazine, No. 10 has a growing backbench problem. Part of the reason MPs have been summoned back to Westminster is that the government has found a remote party is near impossible to whip. Backbenchers have been venting their frustrations over WhatsApp and in some ministers's minds become more susceptible to outside pressure. With growing disquiet on both lockdown and China, aides and whips have been facing up to the reality that a majority of 80 doesn’t allow you to just do what you like. The recent U-turn on the NHS migrant surcharge showed that. 

The speed at which Tory MPs went public to criticise Dominic Cummings last week was further evidence of this. MPs complain of a lack of attention from No. 10 and a general sense that this is a Downing Street operation with little time for MPs. It's not just the usual suspects – long time MPs with little chance of ministerial promotion – going public to criticise the government. Many are from the new 2019 intake of red wall MPs. ‘If you don’t have your new intake onside, what are you even doing?’ complains one bemused MP. The usual method for bringing these MPs on side may also prove ineffective. 'What they don’t realise is a lot of the new intake haven’t spent years planning for high office. They’ll just do what they think is right,' one MP told me previously. 

Right now the particular causes of concern relate to the government's plan for the two week quarantine as well as No. 10's backing of the two metre rule for social distancing (which many Tory MPs want reduced to one metre). In terms of how these MPs can make their feelings thought, to be effective they need their issues to be ones on which opposition MPs agree. It's still an uphill task. But given Margaret Thatcher lost a vote on a full piece of legislation with a majority of 140, the current mood in the party is enough to worry several ministers. 

Written byKaty Balls

Katy Balls is The Spectator's deputy political editor. She is also a columnist for the i paper.

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