Katy Balls

Tory nerves ahead of the Prime Minister’s lockdown address

Tory nerves ahead of the Prime Minister's lockdown address
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When Boris Johnson addresses the nation on Sunday night to unveil his roadmap for easing lockdown in the coming weeks and months, it isn't just the public he needs to bring with him – he also needs to convince his parliamentary party. Over the past week there has been a shift in mood in the Tory Party with a rising number of MPs growing anxious over what they perceive as the slow pace of lockdown easing. As one MP puts it: 'People have started to get skittish.'

When Johnson returned to work following his hospitalisation over coronavirus there had been a hope among the party’s libertarian right that this would mean a fast-track route back to business as usual: he was visibly uncomfortable at the press conferences in the build-up to his announcement of the lockdown on 23 March. Instead, since returning to No. 10, the Prime Minister has shown a sense of cautiousness that has surprised some colleagues. Rather than side with the cabinet hawks, he has outlined an exit strategy that has so far made so-called doves such as Matt Hancock happiest.

The strategy – as set out by Johnson last week – to keep the rate of infection (also known as the R) below 1, does not leave much room for manoeuvre in the coming weeks. There is now little expectation of any big changes in the near future (ministers have used the daily press conferences to lower expectations). The problem is, a growing number of MPs – including around two-thirds of the cabinet – are less cautious and worry about a slow pace of change in the weeks and months to come.

 So far only a handful of MPs have gone public with their frustrations. This week, former European Research Group chair Steve Baker called on the prime minister to provide a clear exit strategy to end this “absurd, dystopian and tyrannical” lockdown. while Iain Duncan Smith has warned of a permanent scarring to the economy if it goes on much longer. The Prime Minister's former business adviser Andrew Griffith – elected as an MP in December – warned over the weekend that every day the UK economy is in lockdown, and its competitors aren’t, means lost business. The lockdown sceptics roughly fall into two camps: those who, like Baker, view it as an assault on individual freedoms, and MPs concerned about the economic costs.

For now, a lot of the frustration is being levelled at the government’s scientific advisers, with Imperial College’s Neil Ferguson – who stepped down this week for breaching social distancing guidelines – a particular subject of criticism. 'The Tory party has decided it hates the lockdown. We can’t blame the PM so we’ve decided to blame the advisers,' explains one MP. 

With polling suggesting that public support for continued strict social distancing remains high (a Sky News/YouGov poll published on Friday found that 75 per cent of those surveyed believe it would be wrong to loosen lockdown restrictions now) questions are being asked over the role of the furlough scheme. 'It’s easy to like lockdown if you are being paid close to the same to stay at home as you would to go to work,' says one MP. Once that scheme is eased out, there's a view that public opinion could change very quickly. 

Johnson could turn things around on Sunday by setting out a clear outline for the next few months – but as one MP puts it, expectations are 'very high'. Should that fail, Coffee House understands he will have a second chance to win over MPs come Tuesday. Plans are underway for a Zoom conference call with all Tory MPs led by the Prime Minister. Ministers are aware that unless things change, Johnson has a growing party management problem on his hands.

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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