Saturday, January 22, 2022

The problems facing the Tories lie with Boris Johnson but he could yet prove to be a Teflon PM

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Senior Tories have tried to calm concerned MPs from the newer ranks by arguing that a leadership contest now would be ruthless. But that doesn’t mean the Prime Minister is out of the woods

Given the seat is a Tory stronghold – Owen Paterson returned with a majority of over 20,000 in the last election – it is a significant moment for the Conservative Party.

Will this be Boris Johnson’s last Christmas at 10 Downing Street? That’s the question Tory MPs are asking after the Conservatives lost the North Shropshire by-election to the Liberal Democrats.

The loss of the 76th-most secure Conservative seat in the country does not exactly inspire confidence in general elections – even if by-elections tend to be more prone to protest votes.

As voter intent polls put Labor firmly in the lead, it concludes a difficult month for Johnson, in which his authority has been weakened.

The outcome of the by-elections has only served to cement concerns about the direction of travel within the faction.

“It’s absolutely awful,” says one MP in a seat facing Lib Dem.

“It’s a bloody disaster. I don’t think he’ll see another Downing Street Christmas after this one,” added a Tory MP, commenting on the current mood in the parliamentary group.

It is worth noting that this is not the first time this year that the Tories have lost a by-election to the Liberal Democrats.

However, when Ed Davey’s party reversed a majority of 16,000 in the Chesham and Amersham by-elections, the solution was seen as fairly obvious.

After complaints from activists that the government’s proposed planning reforms were a major factor on the ground, Johnson has sought to water down the plans.

This served to reassure many Southern MPs who feared that pleasant voters in the Red Wall had been prioritized over their own constituents

It’s more complicated this time. There is no clean solution in North Shropshire. Instead, the disputes that activists on the ground believe contributed to their defeat are all linked to the prime minister: The rambling Peppa Pig speech Johnson delivered at the CBI conference came from his own mouth.

“Partygate” is about allegations that Johnson’s own team flouted Covid rules in the name of socializing last year. The questions asked about how the Downing Street flat refurbishment was funded return to the Prime Minister’s own relationship with the truth.

As pollster James Johnson puts it: “A lot of these branding issues for the Conservatives right now are Boris Johnson issues, not Conservative issues.

“Conservatives are still seen as better on the economy, still better on immigration. It is very possible that a new leader could completely rejuvenate the Conservative party overnight.”

Not that MPs are already planning a move. As a result of the outcome, veterans have tried to calm concerned MPs over the more recent footage – arguing that just as Britain enters another public health crisis in the Omicron variant, a leadership contest would look smug and reckless.

But that doesn’t mean Johnson is over the hill. If things don’t improve in the new year, the talk instead is that Johnson could face a challenge in the spring.

If Omicron deteriorates and the prime minister fails to recover, May’s local elections could become a critical juncture.

“No one wants a leadership contest now – not even the people who could replace Boris,” a government insider said. While there has been some debate in the Commons tea room as to who might support whom, it is very early days.

Johnson’s allies say it’s far too early to write off the prime minister. He’s been described many times as heading out just to prove he’s a Teflon politician.

Though a former colleague of Johnson’s thinks that might be his problem: “Part of the problem with being a Teflon politician is that you think you’re not going to get anything — but one day it’s going to happen.”

For the time being, some ministers are pushing for a restructuring of Johnson’s helpers rather than the man himself. MPs complain that Johnson’s chief of staff Dan Rosenfield has no political antenna and that an “adult” has to be consulted.

Only those closely following the Downing Street operation are skeptical that one aid worker can change things – instead arguing that No 10 has too many aid workers, if any, and no one is quite sure who has say.

A Tory source warns that significant changes are unlikely even if there are staff changes.

“It’s not about suddenly becoming Blair 97 in there,” they say, referring to the former Labor Prime Minister.

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