As Tory MPs headed into the Covid-secure Commons for prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, all they wanted was reassurance after some very worrying weeks.
Over the summer break, Boris Johnson’s administration had performed U-turn after U-turn in a chaotic period of serial blundering that had culminated in arguably the worst mess of all – the exams fiasco.
Out in their constituencies, MPs had struggled to defend what had been going on to their bemused and angry local electorates. Labour had drawn level with the Tories in a poll last weekend for the Observer, having been 26 points behind Johnson’s party in March. “Let’s hope he can cheer us all up today,” said one Conservative.
It was not to be. In fact, Johnson’s performance inspired only more gloom. Under predictable fire from Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, over the A-levels and GCSEs disasters, the prime minister seemed ill-prepared and at sea, thrashing around for defensive lines and veering wildly off the subject as he did so.
At one point, Johnson seemed to suggest that the man holding him to account for his ministers’ mishandling of exams was an IRA sympathiser on the grounds that Starmer had served under Jeremy Corbyn. MPs on both sides of the chamber sat in disbelief.
Incredulous and furious in equal measure, Starmer pointed out that he had in fact spent five years of his legal career prosecuting IRA terrorists and working closely with the intelligence services to track them down. The Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, suggested the prime minister might like to withdraw the comments but Johnson would not do so.
“I thought it was as bad a performance as I have seen from a prime minister in that environment,” a former Tory cabinet minister said. “He has a problem, which is, fundamentally, that he doesn’t have the qualities to do the job properly. He doesn’t work hard enough, he is not on top of the detail, he doesn’t have a clear vision and sense of direction on most issues, and he is being found out.”
While this was on the harsh end of the spectrum, such assessments of the prime minister and his government are not uncommon these days inside the party. As for Johnson himself, he too seems to have realised that Starmer won hands down at PMQs. But he was not blaming himself. In fact, the reverse.
The Observer has been told that after leaving parliament, Johnson tore into his Downing Street team and staff from Conservative Campaign Headquarters, who he felt had not prepared him adequately. “He was furious,” said a well-placed source. “He told his team and people at CCHQ that he wanted them to go after Starmer’s legal record and double down on the attacks on him.”
Rather than try to engage with the issues, the plan seemed to be to mount more and more assaults on Starmer’s past career, during which he took on numerous human rights cases, often pro bono, and ended up as director of public prosecutions.
As word of Johnson’s anger spread within Westminster, more questions were being asked by Tories about what on earth was going wrong. Another very senior Conservative who had served in the cabinet with Johnson, and who has been mainly loyal to him, said: “There is quite a lot of bemusement about why he is not performing better. People [in the party] want to give him the benefit of the doubt but there is a widespread feeling that the preparation is not being done as it should be, and, yes, there is some concern.”
The same ex-minister said there were some doubts about whether Johnson had ever fully recovered from his serious bout of Covid-19. “I thought he looked well but now the doubts are back a bit.”
The prime minister and Rishi Sunak, his chancellor, spent much of the rest of Wednesday trying to reassure backbenchers in a series of private meetings that the ship of state was still on course, and that weekend briefings about impending tax increases for the wealthy to pay the bills for Covid-19 were over the top.
The only one in the cabinet who has looked vaguely competent in the pandemic is Rishi Sunak
Johnson and Sunak’s charm offensive was intended to show a united front ahead of an autumn budget and a spending review that aims to chart a slow way back to stable finances.
However, the latest survey for ConservativeHome, the website for party members, shows Johnson has suffered a dramatic fall in his standing among Tory activists. In December 2019, shortly after the general election, he topped the net satisfaction rating among cabinet members with a score of plus-92.5% while Sunak was fourth on plus-78.5%. Now Johnson has slumped down into the bottom third with a rating of plus-24.6% and Sunak is way out in front on plus-82.5%
Plenty of Conservatives see Sunak, who has impressed MPs with his handling of the economy, not so much as a chancellor who can help Johnson and his government recover its poise, but as a serious threat to the PM. Increasingly, he is mentioned as the one who could counter Starmer in years to come. “Our problem is that Starmer’s appeal is his competence,” one Tory MP said. “The only one in the cabinet who has looked vaguely competent in the pandemic is Rishi Sunak. Boris and No 10 will be beginning to worry about him.”
For Sunak, it is very early days. Even if the worst of Covid-19 is already over (which is highly questionable), paying the bills for the pandemic will be painful, and it will be the chancellor who will have to inflict the financial suffering. “So far, he has been handing out the money and all those cut-price meals. That is the easy part. At some point we all have to pay for that,” a member of the Treasury select committee said. With Brexit still unresolved, Sunak, like Johnson, will take the blame if a No Deal compounds the already severe economic problems.
But some MPs and commentators believe Sunak is already getting into the prime minister’s head, and worrying him. Johnson is used to being the pretender to the crown, not the one threatened by a new star on the up. The chancellor’s branding is clever and slick, and it appears he is already mounting something of an operation. He recently posted a photograph on Instagram of himself at the Globe theatre, waiting in the wings, ready to take the stage. “If that didn’t send a message I don’t know what will,” says a former No 10 adviser.
Some think No 10 is already marshalling its forces to stop Sunak. Such is the gathering sense of unhappiness and ebbing confidence about Johnson in the Tory party, that there have been suggestions that newspaper stories last weekend about planned tax rises on the better-off were planted not by the Treasury to prepare the public (the normal softening-up exercise) but by No 10 to damage Sunak and stop his advance, by painting him as an enemy of well-off Tory voters.
If that was the aim, it had some success as the Tory tabloids reacted furiously on Monday and fired warning shots at the man leading the Treasury. “The chancellor’s latest proposals – which include raising corporation tax – fill us with dread,” said the Sun.
Meanwhile, Johnson and his team plough on unconvincingly as the jobless totals grow, the number of Covid-19 cases rise again, and arguments rage around the appointment of the controversial former Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, as an adviser on post-Brexit trade negotiations. As the government’s problems mount, the optimism that Johnson created around himself only a few months ago is shot.
Perhaps most worryingly of all for Johnson, a successor is being talked about. Another ex-cabinet minister, when asked about the prime minister’s prospects said: “I think he will still be leading the party in a year’s time.” Given that this prime minister delivered his party election glory as recently as last December, it is a measure of how far his fortunes have sunk that there is any doubt at all about who will lead the Tories into the next one.