Have the last few wobbly weeks seen a turning point for Johnson as PM?

Politics

Have the last few weeks seen a turning point in Boris Johnson’s premiership? 

Dozens of Tories have refused to follow the prime minister’s orders in the voting lobbies on issues as diverse as sleaze and social care.

Meanwhile a handful of Tory MPs have gone public with demands for change, with many more complaining in Westminster’s cafes and bars. At times, it has felt like Mr Johnson was losing his political agility.

“There are too many issues at the moment in which the government is shooting itself in the foot with issues and problems which as I say colleagues are warning and warning and warning about and that are visible from Venus, Mars even maybe visible from Pluto,” northern Tory and ex minister Andrew Percy told Sky News.

“And that has got to stop because we owe the people of this country better than that.”

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Is PM losing Tory support?

Mr Percy hasn’t always been a rebel, though he accepts that description now.

Not that long ago he occupied the high profile portfolio of Northern Powerhouse minister until 2017 and was an early backer of Mr Johnson’s leadership in the summer of 2019.

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Nor can he just be dismissed as one of a small number of irreconcilables.

Almost one in seven Tory MPs – 52 of them – have rebelled more often than Mr Percy, according to the Public Whip website which provides a crude tally of how many times he and his colleagues have voted against their party.

Yet he is one of the few prepared to go on the record in a television interview quite so expansively with their concerns, and as he sits in his office next to a full size Yorkshire flag, he worries, the government’s political antennae is wonky.

“Those are questions that people around the prime minister and then the senior levels of government have to ask themselves.

“They have to look and see if the setup of this government is broad enough, if it is drawn wide enough from the party if it is reflective of our new voter base, if it’s reflective even of our new base on the back benches.”

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Last week, he voted like many others against the government’s social care plans because they will mean the less well off having to pay more than affluent voters before the state steps in and picks up care home bills.

Tory rebels cut the government majority from 80 to 26, setting off alarm bells across the party.

Mr Percy blasts Rishi Sunak’s department, saying their focus on keeping control of public spending is getting in the way of the party meeting its promises.

He said: “The Treasury has to be cognizant of what we promised people, what we told people, and I understand absolutely, you know, public spending is at record levels, you know, the amount of debt we are facing following COVID and all the rest of it is really, really very challenging.

“And these same conversations are happening in governments all across the world. I totally appreciate the challenge, but commitments were made, be that on rail, they were made on social care, they were put into our manifesto, people voted for us on the basis of those and therefore, you know, we need to ensure that we are making good on those promises.”

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Beneath the surface this argument, between Tories who want to spend whatever it takes to deliver for voters, and those who think strong public finances are the bedrock of the Tory claim to competence.

Not all promises cost money, however, and Tories across the party are worried one of their biggest weaknesses stems from making offers that never materialise.

Ex-minister Tim Loughton, now a Tory on the home affairs select committee, points the finger firmly at France for the migrant crisis.

However he worries that the government has talked up its ability to find a quick fix too often when it is unable to find an easy solution.

Tim Loughton (front) points the finger firmly at France for the migrant crisis
Image:
Tim Loughton (front) points the finger firmly at France for the migrant crisis

“There is a genuine concern that the government has talked tough,” he told me. “The government genuinely wants this trade to end, as we all do, but we haven’t been able to achieve that on our own because most of the cards are in the hands of French.

“And perhaps it wasn’t wise to overpromise when we couldn’t rely on the partnership we need to solve this.”

Soon there will be two opportunities for voters to pass their verdict, with two traditionally safe Tory seats heading to the polls for a byelection.

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This Thursday will see the vote in Bexley and Old Sidcup where the south London voters will choose a successor to popular minister James Brokenshire, who died of cancer in October.

Two weeks later, voters in North Shropshire will elect a successor to disgraced ex-minister Owen Paterson. Few expect an upset in Bexley, although some Liberal Democrats say they are putting in a concerted effort in Shropshire.

On the streets of Bexley, however, there was little sign of danger for Mr Johnson, where at times voters appeared more forgiving than his own MPs.

Tory voters there talk of Mr Johnson going “off the boil” and “fumbling” and doing things that mean they “lack confidence”.

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Asked if that means they will take their vote elsewhere, most said not, often arguing he had been dealt an unprecedented bad hand.

This could be dismissed as an outlier result in a safe Tory seat, but the national opinion polls suggest that even after the most recent few weeks, Mr Johnson’s party enjoys an advantage.

The most recent YouGov survey from last week puts the Tories on 36% and Labour on 35%.

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Older voters in the 65 and above category are twice as likely to vote Tory than Labour, an advantage Labour has not yet begun to directly tackle.

Meanwhile there is little sign Keir Starmer’s Labour is winning over Tory votes directly. Amongst those who voted Tory in 2019, 6% would now choose to vote for Labour but twice as many, 11%, would go for the little known Brexit Party successor, Reform UK.

The last three weeks have seen doubts about Mr Johnson in Westminster unthinkable even during Tory conference in early October, as well as calls for him to shake up his team and signs of fissures in government.

It is not yet clear those doubts in Westminster have filtered through and changed the voting habits in the country.

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