Boris Johnson is hoping that his MPs have calmed down over the Christmas break and that this term will be slightly less turbulent than the autumn. There is not, though, much evidence that this will be the case. Worries about the cost of living, ongoing Covid problems and the unwinding of various Tory party rows will mean that Johnson needs to be on top form to tackle this spring. There is not yet much evidence of that, either.
There is a consensus among Tory MPs that the Downing Street operation needs to change. There seems to be little love lost for his chief of staff Dan Rosenfield, who backbenchers complain doesn’t understand the party – or indeed how ministerial egos work. Others point to a comms operation whose approach, in their view, led to the leaking of the incendiary video about the Downing Street Christmas party: if Johnson’s spokespeople had been honest from the start about the allegations when they were published in the Mirror, then the row wouldn’t have built to such an extent. Of course, Johnson played no small part in increasing that pressure by insisting at Prime Minister’s Questions that there hadn’t been any rule-breaking. And herein lies one of the biggest questions: will changing personnel really make much difference when the judgement of the Prime Minister himself is in question?
Johnson is not the kind of man who makes new year’s resolutions to transform his character. But he has, in the past, understood that he needs to work harder at his relationships within the Conservative party in order to get what he wants. When he returned to Parliament, for instance, he cut a lonely figure at first, struggling to make an impression in the Chamber or socially. Then, his lieutenants worked out how to get him wooing backbench colleagues so that he built up a proper power base ahead of the first of his leadership bids – and they did so again when that first bid exposed some of the flaws in his character and support.
But another character flaw of Johnson’s is that he’s not very good at building or maintaining long-standing friendships. He is a classic loner, and many of the people who supported him from the outset have been discarded along the way. One of his earliest parliamentary lieutenants was Jake Berry, who is no longer an outrider for the Prime Minister but a vocal campaigner who sometimes speaks out against him. Johnson was caught shooting Berry a dark look back in November when he asked at Prime Minister’s Questions whether voters in the north were ‘right to take the Prime Minister at his word’. Johnson was clearly unsettled enough to see one of his old supporters speaking against him to invite him into Downing Street for what Berry told me yesterday on Times Radio was a ‘big session’ on levelling up. Berry didn’t seem back on side as a result of that session, but it’s a sign Johnson is realising he needs to work harder to keep even his longest-standing allies on board. He will need all the allies he can get to survive the spring: he currently doesn’t have many at all.