By Scott Harker
In the aftermath of the 2019 general election, Boris Johnson possessed an authority eclipsing that of almost all of his post-war predecessors. The process of ‘getting Brexit done’ had effectively purged his party of critics and secured their replacement with a new cohort of MPs, many of whom owed their new jobs to the electoral appeal of their leader. This authority has outlasted missteps during the pandemic and an unprecedented economic crisis, yet the last two weeks feel like a turning point.
Yesterday’s bizarre speech from the Prime Minister to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI)’s conference triggered a string of newspaper reports this morning that he is losing the confidence of Conservative MPs. During the speech itself, the Prime Minister impersonated a car accelerating, compared himself to Moses, and then asked attendees if they had been to Peppa Pig World (a mere 300 miles away from the conference venue). One can only assume that this choice of content was deliberate, as the Prime Minister also managed to lose his place in the speech and spent an uncomfortable few moments mumbling “forgive me”.
Viewed in isolation, the speech would not have done much damage to the Prime Minister (if anything, it played to his disorganised, ‘wing it’ image). However, on the back of the Owen Paterson scandal and growing disquiet at the failure of levelling up to match the Government’s impressive rhetoric, the speech gave the impression of a Prime Minister lurching between crises with little control. Polling figures match this mood and show the two largest parties neck-and-neck. No one doubts that Labour still has much to do to win the next election, but that task is starting to look a little easier.
There is little to indicate a full-blown plot by Conservative MPs to remove Johnson. The focus, rather, is on the need for the Prime Minister to ‘raise his game’. This should be driven by the two key groups that he surrounds himself with: his advisors and his Cabinet.
The Prime Minister’s inner circle received much coverage earlier in the year, with briefings focussing on splits between the different camps within No 10, including those advisers close to Carrie Johnson, with the blame being levelled in all directions. Some have stressed that the Prime Minister is being left to do too much, and is suffering as a result, while others point to increasingly needless U-turns, a sign of a lack of strategic thinking.
Then there is the Cabinet, which has lacked clout throughout Johnson’s premiership. Again, many owe their status to the Prime Minister and there is little evidence of unrest or pressure being put on the Prime Minister from within the Government. Ministers are now themselves likely to be pressed by colleagues on the need to avoid repeating the damage of the past two weeks.
Johnson is not the first Prime Minister to face a blip of this kind but talk of the need for change from within the Conservative Party points to an erosion of his authority. Regardless of the steps that he now takes, the Prime Minister is unlikely to ever hold as strong a grip as he did through 2020 and the early part of this year. He may be about to find that once confidence in his leadership is lost, it is difficult to win it back.