Monday, January 24, 2022

What does the new year have in store for the prime minister?

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“It’s not looking good for Johnson, but as he hasn’t yet had an appetite for a leadership contest, could he recover?”

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

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.

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 direction-of-travel concerns within the group.

“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 overturned a majority of 16,000 in Chesham and Amersham, the solution was seen as fairly obvious.

After complaints from activists that the government’s proposed planning reforms were a big 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 gave 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 and 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 result, veterans have tried to calm worried MPs from the newer candidates – 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 “on his way out” just to prove he’s a Teflon politician. However, a former colleague of Johnson’s believes this could 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 will.”

For now, some ministers are pushing for a reorganization of Johnson’s aides rather than the man himself. MPs complain that his chief of staff, Dan Rosenfield, lacks a political antenna and needs an “adult” 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 turning Blair 97 there,” they say, referring to the former Labor Prime Minister.

What Johnson does next, the prime minister’s attempts in a post-result interview to suggest some blame on the media for focusing on parties rather than the refresher program have gone badly with his own party. MPs believe many of these stories would have died down by now had No 10 handled them better.

Instead, MPs want to move from excuses by Johnson and his team to material things to point to. He has told colleagues that he sees the delivery as key to the next election. But many of the government’s recent announcements — such as tax hikes — give Conservatives little cause for celebration.

Johnson had hoped the Leveling White Paper would give some impetus to his domestic agenda. Instead, that has been delayed and the Prime Minister has begun to cite boosters as his key achievement for the new year.
If Johnson is to prove his critics wrong, he must give his party something else to talk about when the House of Commons returns in the new year.

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