This time last year, Boris Johnson and his team were making plans to ‘move on’ from the pandemic. He had been elected thanks to Brexit, then had to handle the Covid disaster, but he didn’t want either to define his government. ‘We have an indecent amount of great stuff to get into as soon as this ends,’ he’d tell supporters privately. But this claim had two problems. First, there would be no end to the Covid drama. Second, the ‘great stuff`’ he intended to do was often a mystery even to his own government.
For a while, the success of the vaccine procurement kept his poll ratings high. There was a hope that Britain would be the first country to jab its way back to normality. Instead, the rollout slowed and the UK has now been overtaken by France in the vaccination league table. Rows over vaccine passports, self-isolation and expensive tests for holidays have dampened the public mood. ‘Nobody is thanking us anymore,’ says one minister.
Once again, Johnson wants to focus on his domestic agenda. And once again, his plans could be derailed at any minute. A winter Covid strategy will soon be set out, as well as the worst-case scenario for managing the virus in the coming months. ‘Covid we can probably handle,’ says one minister. ‘But Covid plus flu — that’s the big fear.’ There are concerns that the flu jab (to be given out alongside boosters) will not be as effective as in the past.
In focus groups, voters complain they are tiring of Johnson and see him as a ‘one-trick pony’ Brexiteer. They are not alone in this analysis. When Tory MPs returned to the Commons chamber en masse for the recall of parliament, they repeatedly berated the Prime Minister for a lack of leadership on the situation in Afghanistan. Whips are on high alert for disloyal behaviour. Following reports of tensions between Johnson and Rishi Sunak, they are paying particularly close attention to the Chancellor’s regular ‘outreach sessions’ with MPs.
Ask a minister what the government plan is and you may be met with a bewildered expression. With a series of reviews due to be published — on levelling up, net zero and connecting the union — one minister complains that the Johnson agenda most closely resembles an ‘alphabet soup’.
Election strategist Lynton Crosby has been brought back into the fold and is giving advice to the Prime Minister. Aides are acutely aware that the next election could come around as early as 2023. The government needs a message that’s about more than Brexit and vaccines.
Rumours of a cabinet reshuffle persist. Downing Street had flirted with the idea of one before the summer recess. Depending on who you speak to in government, it’s now due in September, after the COP26 climate summit in November, or next year. ‘These reshuffle rumours are having a debilitating effect on the government,’ complains a cabinet minister. ‘He should just do it, or kill the speculation. It’s hard to plan ahead if you have no idea whether you’ll be in your job by Christmas.’
It doesn’t help that many already feel left out in the cold by the No. 10 operation. The full cabinet was not even given a call to discuss events in Afghanistan — although this sense of isolation ought to be at least in part remedied by the plan to return to physical meetings of the cabinet next month. And while he’s at it, Johnson could also do with undertaking a charm offensive to boost Tory party morale. As well as the backbench rebellion brewing on his house-building plans, his big-spend ideas are proving divisive. ‘There’s a heap of big costs coming from promises that a lot of us feel no attachment to,’ says one red wall MP.
It doesn’t help, either, that in parliament’s first week back Johnson is expected to unveil his social care plans, funded by a 1 per cent hike on National Insurance. This would break a manifesto pledge, and there may be plenty more to come. The triple lock is also in doubt.
The autumn spending review will expose the ideological fault line in the Tory party: is this a party of fiscal discipline or not? How can Sunak’s anxiety over the deficit be reconciled with Johnson’s love of big projects? Worryingly for the Chancellor, there are plenty of ministers coming around to the Prime Minister’s view. ‘The cost of net zero, Brexit and Covid means that fiscal conservatism isn’t possible in the way it was previously,’ says one.
The levelling-up agenda is a cause of friction too. Many MPs fear that it amounts to nothing more than taxing the south to bribe the north. Those who remain committed to it and view it as essential for retaining red-wall seats are nervous that it could soon be undercut by the government’s other key domestic goal: net zero.
Ahead of the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Johnson will take a more public role in the government’s climate-change messaging. Plans for the event — which he views as a reset moment for his premiership — are well underway. The negotiations with other countries on climate commitments may be proving difficult, but progress is at least being made on a mascot. According to one insider, it resembles a ‘demented seal’.
Domestically, ministers worry that the cost of net-zero pledges could turn off voters. The government’s Heat and Building Strategy, a core part of the net-zero target, has been repeatedly delayed as a result of No. 10’s concerns over a potential backlash. ‘The problem is every option is difficult and costly,’ explains one figure privy to the papers. Increasingly, it looks as if the Prime Minister’s promise that no hardworking household will pay more to fund the green agenda will be hard to keep.
Tory backbenchers are already on the offensive, complaining that the public ought not to be punished when large emitters such as China are ‘carrying on as usual’. In a sign of trouble ahead, it’s not even certain whether China will attend the conference.
With a majority of 80, Johnson has been dealt a stronger hand than his two predecessors when it comes to leaving his mark. But two years after he entered No. 10, it is still unclear exactly what that mark will be.