There’s a mutinous mood in Westminster this Christmas. In quiet corridors on the parliamentary estate the question is being asked: has Boris outlived his usefulness? Ministers are laying low. Tory WhatsApp groups are hushed. MPs are dodging calls from the whips, claiming to be sick or working from home. In conversations with Tory MPs, it isn’t long before the topic of Johnson’s long-term future comes up.
‘Everyone’s sniffing the air — you can just feel it,’ says a former adviser to the Prime Minister. Members of the cabinet, from Liz Truss to Rishi Sunak, are accused of being on manoeuvres. One former minister has taken to measuring his office to work out how many desks he can fit into it, should a contest begin sooner rather than later. The answer: 16, enough to host a small campaign team.
This isn’t how Johnson’s team imagined the Prime Minister would mark the two-year anniversary of the day the Tories won a majority of 80. Just a month ago, cabinet ministers were joking about which one of them could claim the credit for ‘saving Christmas’, thanks to the vaccine rollout. Instead, Christmas once again hangs in the balance and Britain is plunged back into uncertainty, not just over the Omicron variant but the government’s confused response to it.
It’s hard for Johnson to tell people not to go to parties when he is beating back stories that his own staff broke lockdown rules last winter and held as many as four parties in No. 10. His approach — to deny any parties took place — ran into problems when leaked footage emerged showing senior aides joking about a Downing Street Christmas party in a mock press conference. When Johnson moved to his Covid ‘Plan B’ and introduced vaccine passports just hours after the video became public, Tory MPs openly accused him of trying to distract attention from an uncomfortable story.
Ministers were also caught off guard. Those privy to the Prime Minister’s thinking insist the sudden change of heart was driven by new data. On 7 December, No. 10 received worrying information which suggested that the variant was doubling every two to three days as opposed to two to six days. Early vaccine data also suggested Omicron led to a 40-fold drop in efficacy for the Pfizer vaccine, and tests found Astra-Zeneca to give ‘zero’ effectiveness against symptom-atic disease from the variant (although it likely offers some protection against serious illness).
No. 10 had previously assured Tory MPs that there would be no further restrictions until more conclusive data was in. Instead, Downing Street has acted pre-emptively. The thinking went that if Omicron cases were growing fast and vaccines offer less protection, then the NHS had to be in danger, so restrictions were needed to ‘buy time’. But it’s unclear how much (if any) time was bought by a mask mandate. Sage believes that work-from-home guidance has only cut the R-number from 4.0 to 3.6.
Although the cabinet is divided on how to tackle Omicron, everyone can see the direction of travel. ‘On the current logic, we are heading to a lockdown in around three weeks,’ predicts one downbeat government source. ‘The government has decided cases are a problem. A million cases could be in about three weeks’ time.’ A new lockdown would mean more furlough and huge costs, at a time when the Treasury is reluctant to find any new Covid emergency funds. Several cabinet ministers say they will need to be shown clear data (as opposed to modelling) on the new variant before they will back further restrictions.
It’s unclear, too, what the way out would be this time. Last year, Johnson said restrictions were only necessary until the vaccine ‘cavalry’ arrived. Now the bulk of the country is jabbed, yet restrictions have returned. ‘We can’t become a Covid state that locks down every winter,’ moans a minister. The emergency booster campaign is intended to stop this happening. But since Johnson suffered his biggest Tory rebellion to date over vaccine passports, it’s easy to see a situation where he has to rely on Labour support to go further — a dangerous place for a Prime Minister already on thin ice with his MPs.
The row over Downing Street parties isn’t just about Covid and how it could hurt public compliance with the rules. The debacle is viewed by MPs as one in a series of examples of systemic — perhaps terminal — dysfunction in No. 10. It fits a pattern with the Owen Paterson row, the rambling ‘Peppa Pig’ CBI speech and the ongoing question regarding what Johnson knew about the funding for the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat. The public, too, are starting to notice — the Labour party has its largest poll lead since 2014.
‘The story perfectly crystallises Boris’s problems — to lie for about a week and a half saying there was no party in the hope of brazening it out, only to have it blow up,’ says a former confidant to Johnson. ‘The Prime Minister has a complicated relationship with the truth most of the time he’s talking.’ One member of the original Johnson campaign team says: ‘We need to replace him with a conservative.’
MPs complain that there’s no consultation or strategy. Even several of the whips no longer bother to hide their lack of faith in the Downing Street operation. ‘There’s no grip — no direction or proper thinking going on at all,’ says one MP. It doesn’t help that Tories have little to shout about on the doorstep — tax rises are detested by MPs and the levelling-up agenda is struggling to take off. After Dominic Cummings and the Vote Leave team departed in November last year, there was much talk in the media of the return of ‘adults in the room’ at No. 10. Instead, MPs complain that these days Downing Street is filled with courtiers who are too afraid to tell the Prime Minister when he is wrong. ‘It’s Gove-ites and friends of Carrie,’ says one MP, in reference to the Prime Minister’s wife. ‘When it was Dom [Cummings] in there, it was easier for the PM as he was so divisive, everyone just blamed Dom,’ says a government adviser. ‘Now he has a bunch of yes-men, it’s much harder to say they are the problem.’
Simon Case, the young cabinet secretary, has been tasked with investigating claims of parties in No. 10. More staff members could soon be shown the door. It’s not entirely clear who would replace them and if they would do a better job. ‘The chaos is not going to change. The only question is how long we tolerate it. Everyone is tired,’ says a senior Tory.
The 2019 intake of ‘red wall’ MPs, once seen as uber-loyalists to Johnson, are the most critical. The whips believe the handful of letters of no confidence sent to the 1922 Committee so far come from this newer group. ‘It’s interesting how quickly the scales have dropped from the eyes of the 2019-ers,’ says one old-timer. ‘It shows they don’t have the connection to the party many of us do.’
When it comes to toppling a Prime Minister, the eventual ‘cause of death’ (as one senior Tory calls it) can be a slow waning of authority or an unexpected event that speeds things up. For Johnson — who has few loyalists in the Commons — many MPs think the latter is more likely. One old hand says that deposing a Prime Minister takes much longer than newbie MPs think. As one senior minister puts it: ‘It took a very long time to get to 48 letters to oust Theresa — and back then we didn’t have a majority because she screwed up. This time we do have an 80-seat majority and it’s because Boris won it.’
What’s more, no one is really sure who would be better. Of the current ministers, Sunak and Truss are viewed as the two frontrunners. There are already indications of how such a contest could play out. Truss posed for pictures on a tank in Estonia, an obvious reference to Margaret Thatcher, and she is keen to talk up free markets at any opportunity. Sunak has been developing a narrative that ought to play well to the Tory base: any extra cash he gets, he says, should be used to cut taxes.
Not everyone is sold. ‘Rishi is a photocopy of a free marketer,’ says one member of government. ‘He’s a management consultant who knows what to say but falls short on action. Liz believes in free markets, but you get the sense she’s posturing.’
Any race would see more candidates appear. Jeremy Hunt is viewed as the dark horse — the man who made it to the final two in the last leadership contest. He could clearly pitch himself as a serious candidate not associated with any of Johnson’s chaos. Priti Patel, Sajid Javid and (don’t put it past him) Matt Hancock are also tipped to enter the race if it takes place.
In the Prime Minister’s favour, however, is the fact that most would-be candidates could do with more time to prepare. Johnson has been written off many times before and has always bounced back. He could very likely do so again. ‘The only politician anyone wants to talk about is Boris — he is a political celebrity,’ says a minister. ‘People are a long way from thinking their seat will only be secure if Truss or Rishi takes over. They’re not ready to gamble their seats just yet.’
Johnson’s relationship with his MPs always was transactional: they didn’t much like him in the first place, nor he them. He’d take them to government and they’d take him to No. 10. So in a way, it doesn’t matter much how furious they are with him. As long as his party believes there is no one else who would do a better job of winning the north, Johnson stays.