The ministers are offering the Prime Minister advice and expertise that he would find difficult to get from his own team of advisers
Instead, it mattered because of the nature of the conversation that unfolded. Ministers under Boris Johnson have complained that Cabinet has become a performative affair. Important decisions are made in advance and then approved. The PM tends to keep his eye on the clock. Those ministers who are said to have talked too long (even if flatteringly) fall out of favor with No.10. A regular offender – Robert Buckland – lost his job in the last reshuffle.
When Boris Johnson’s ministers met virtually for a conference call on Monday to discuss Covid restrictions, it was the most significant cabinet of the year. It wasn’t because of what was decided in politics. In truth, nothing changed – with Johnson concluding that he would not table any new measures just yet, instead continuing to review the data.
But on Monday, Johnson was in listening mode, encouraging ministers to speak up and bringing dissenting voices to the wise man’s advice, such as Rishi Sunak and Jacob Rees-Mogg. “He was humble,” says one participant. The meeting was not short either, lasting well over two hours. Despite warnings from the scientists, which were enough to frighten the Prime Minister, the majority in the cabinet prevailed: wait for more data instead of canceling Christmas.
It marks a change for Johnson – one that will be welcomed by his cabinet, even if it is borne out of necessity.
Since moving to Downing Street, the Prime Minister – thanks to his majority of 80 and his lead in polls – has relied on brute force or force rather than persuasion to get his way. Now Johnson is in the most dangerous position of his premiership; he has to change.
During the Vote Leave era of his administration, Dominic Cummings, his chief adviser at the time, centralized power at No. 10. Ministers felt overwhelmed, and even decisions on ministerial staffing matters were being snatched out of their hands. Tory MPs complained that Cummings didn’t even bother to hide his disdain for them.
After the Vote Leave team left, there was talk of more consultation and more parliamentary outreach. That first took the form of a series of Zoom calls between Downing Street officials and MPs, although participants complained that they often didn’t hear much and occasionally had to watch the Speaker eat dinner on camera. More recently Downing Street has hosted drink receptions for MPs.
As far as counseling is concerned, the problem seemed to be getting worse. There was not even a cabinet decision to withdraw British troops from Afghanistan. Johnson pushed through an increase in the Social Security tax to fund the NHS, despite speaking out from some of his ministers and MPs clearly dismayed. One complained at the time: “They didn’t even try to win us over.”
That is changing now. The weakening of the prime minister’s authority over the past four weeks has happened so rapidly that many of his own advisers have been taken by surprise. What started as a row over Owen Paterson and No. 10’s botched attempt to avoid a suspension over lobbying rules has turned into a snowball.
Johnson is now fighting the fire on several fronts: the Omicron variant, alleged rule-breaking by members of Downing Street, the resignation of his Cabinet partner David Frost over the direction of travel and the second by-election defeat to the Liberal Democrats this year.
The polls reflect this, with Labor enjoying a comfortable lead while Johnson’s own approval ratings are at an all-time low. An online video showing Darts World Cup participants yelling “stand up if you hate Boris” has only served to scare MPs.
Government advisers privately debate who will be the next leader as a matter of when, not if. Ideally, the various camps would like to wait until the summer rather than risk competing during a public health crisis.
“I see no way out for him,” says a government adviser. Alongside an increasingly rebellious mood among Tory backbenchers, Frost’s departure as Brexit Secretary has served as a reminder to Johnson that there is a turning point even among his supporters.
As revealed on Monday, the weakening of Johnson’s position means it is much harder for him to get back on his feet. Instead, he is, to some extent, locked in on Covid by what his cabinet is striving for. That, or risk resignations.
Expect this to become a broader topic in the new year – whether in taxes, with Rishi Sunak having to relentlessly expend free funds on cutting them; or mandatory vaccinations, an idea Health Secretary Sajid Javid has ruled out.
While this will inevitably limit some of the things Johnson wants to do, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. A cabinet government should be positive – with ministers offering advice and expertise to the prime minister, he would find it difficult to get from his own team of advisors.
As a senior Downing St source told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg last month, as concerns about Johnson’s performance began to mount: “The Cabinet needs to wake up and demand serious change or it will only get worse. If they don’t insist, he just won’t do anything about it.”
At the time, the quote prompted a furious backlash in #10 with a hunt to find the “chatty pig” behind the comments. But a month later, ministers are doing exactly what the source recommended. The question is whether a change in sentiment will be enough to save Johnson’s premiership – or simply buy him some more time.
Katy Balls is deputy political editor at The Spectator.