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Mon 28 September 2020
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Drawing on his experience working on political campaigns and advising governments, Stephen Colegrave sees a bleak future for the Prime Minister after his handling of COVID-19

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There has been intense media speculation over whether Dominic Cummings will survive as the Prime Minister’s chief advisor. The real question is whether the Prime Minister will survive at the hands of the Conservative Party.

Boris Johnson has the largest majority of any Conservative Prime Minister since Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s and seems unassailable. There is palpable frustration amongst many that the excess deaths under his watch are now the highest of any peacetime prime minister in living memory, but an 80 seat majority means the public is unlikely to get a chance to have their say in his future for four years.

Johnson’s only equity in the party is his ability to win, not the loyalty, respect, or strong relationships with the party grandees, that make or break party leaders.

As long as Johnson can take the Conservative Party with him he is invincible. But the first cracks in his ability to do this have been exposed by his determination to keep Cummings. A YouGov poll on 26 May showing that 71% thought Cummings disregarded government lockdown regulations when he travelled to Durham, and 59% that he should quit. Even the Daily Mail turned against him.  This contrasted with an earlier poll on 23 March at the start of Lockdown when 72% thought the Government was doing well and only 21% that it was doing badly.

The reasons why Johnson has decided to squander so much political capital on retaining Cummings have already been covered in detail in Byline Times, but the question is whether this will damage him below the political waterline?

It seems that forty or more Conservative MPs have spoken out against Cummings and a junior minister has resigned. But the limits of this rebellion were all too apparent when the chair of the Health and Social Care Parliamentary Committee Jeremy Hunt, clearly criticised Cummings but refused to call for his sacking. Senior members of the party know this is not the time to humiliate Johnson and corner him on Cummings and he is likely to ride this out in the short term — but what are the long-term implications for Johnson’s premiership?


Not Natural Conservatives

Johnson and Cummings are not party players. Cummings is not a natural Conservative. He has created a political philosophy that is the opposite of conservatism from Disraeli on — one that pits the people against a rotten establishment, instead of defending, revitalising and extending the establishment. Cummings and his associates are still operating as if they were running ‘Vote Leave’ and the whole political strategy of managing the COVID-19 pandemic has been to treat it like a political campaign, with electoral campaigning headlines about billions of pieces of PPE, 100,000 tests a day and a ‘world-beating test and trace programme’, not to mention the party-political broadcasts in the form of daily press conferences.

Johnson is more complicated. His ego has always been too big for the party. He sees himself in Churchillian terms, but doesn’t have the statesmanship to underpin this detached relationship with the Conservative Party.

After stalking David Cameron from the backbenches and flip-flopping on Brexit, Johnson didn’t have credibility in the party until he started to prove himself a winner with Brexit, followed by his election as Conservative leader and then beating all the forecasts to a massive electoral majority last year. Of course, Cummings was central to this and helped turn him from zip-wiring mayoral buffoon to a vote winner: however, Johnson’s only equity in the party is his ability to win, not the loyalty, respect, or strong relationships with the party grandees, that make or break party leaders. The problem is that once this equity is in doubt, the premiership will unravel.

The lack of integration between Number 10 and the civil service, the party grandees and the parliamentary party, spurred on by Cummings iconoclastic approach means that there is little goodwill or commitment by the party, once the gravity defining ability to win looks like crashing to earth.


The Tide Turns

This is why Cummings miscalculation of the public mood and Johnson’s determination to hang on to him really does matter. It is likely that historians will look back and see this as the point at which the Johnson premiership was lost.

Cummings’ mystical ability to win against the odds that went right back to the beginning of his career when he defied all expectations and managed to get the public to vote against regional assemblies, was destroyed by his ridiculous performance in the Downing Street rose garden. This went far beyond breaking the cardinal rule that the chief adviser should never become the story. The unapologetic, far-fetched fairy tale in the woods of County Durham completely missed the public mood and the myth bubble burst.

The warning signs were already there. No amount advertising as thinly veiled subsidy for a normally compliant press could paper over the rising public criticism of over-promises and under-delivery in combating mass deaths in care homes and lack of protection for NHS and key workers. This has led to the highest number of deaths of health workers in Europe according to Medscape. Even before Cummings broke Lockdown rules, the usual support of the press had broken down.

So why can’t Johnson just ride it out and wait for it all to come good over the next four years as the economy bounces back and a vaccine make the Lockdown just a distant memory?

If he was a Labour Premier he probably could. The Labour process of triggering and running a leadership election is biased in favour of the sitting leader, but the Conservative party is far more deadly as Margaret Thatcher found out all too well. Far more Conservative Prime Ministers lote their premierships before they get a chance to test it at elections than in the Labour Party — as Johnson’s predecessors David Cameron and Theresa May prove.

The Conservative Party always has an eye on the next election and wants to back a winner, especially the all-powerful 1922 Committee. That is why Conservative Governments have managed to hold power for the last decade even though they oversaw an unprecedented policy of austerity.


The Curse of the Coronavirus

The Conservative party is a clever predator. It can bide its time, but it tends to be most brutal when a general election gets closer. Fixed parliaments and a large majority mean it can take its time to ditch Johnson and still give a new leader a good run-up to the next election, but that doesn’t mean the grandees haven’t already made up their minds. They can’t forget that Johnson had no compunction about taking the whip away from party stalwarts like Nicolas Soames. In the meantime, they are happy for Johnson acolytes like Michael Gove and Matt Hancock to do the rounds TV studios. But make no mistake Johnson has a target on his back.

Even the Conservative Party cannot dodge the Government’s appalling record on the Coronavirus pandemic. On any measure, the UK has suffered the worst death toll in Europe and eventually it will not be able to stop a public inquiry. The Government will do its best to emasculate the process, but it is going to be very difficult to cover up the deadly miscalculations of the SAGE group and the serious consequences of ignoring the warning signs and data from China and then Italy that led to delaying banning large events and instituting the lockdown. The consequences were deadly. A study from Southhampton University concludes that more than 20,000 lives could have been saved if lockdown had been imposed just one week earlier on 16 March.

Johnson will be the perfect scapegoat for the public inquiry and it is certainly worth the Conservative Party saving up his scalp until then. They have always got Matt Hancock to throw over board in the meantime if the going gets tough. Until then, the party will put up with Johnson and even Cummings, hence Jeremy Hunt’s reluctance to call for his sacking, but don’t confuse this with long term support for either of Johnson or Cummings now their winning streak looks at an end.

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