‘Lazy, Slapdash, Badly Organised’The Backbench Grumblings on Boris Johnson's Future Have Begun
Adrian Goldberg speaks to Conservative insiders about how the Prime Minister is viewed by his own MPs and his chances of leading the party into the next General Election
Not content with presiding over the worst Coronavirus death toll in Europe, Boris Johnson has set another unenviable record – by enjoying the shortest honeymoon period of any Prime Minister in living memory.
The Conservatives are normally loyal to any leader they think will keep them in power but, little more than six months after romping home with an 80 seat majority and a vow to “get Brexit done”, Johnson has faced savage criticism from his own side.
His predecessor Theresa May this week condemned the appointment of Brexit negotiator David Frost as the new National Security Advisor, while just a fortnight ago the former International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell described Johnson’s plan to merge his old department with the Foreign Office as “a serious error of judgement”.
It normally takes a bit longer than this for the backbench backbiting to begin.
Margaret Thatcher faced internal dissent to her strict monetarist policies from the start of her premiership in 1979, but it wasn’t until she sacked three ‘wet’ Cabinet ministers two years later that the serious catcalling began, led by Sir Ian Gilmour, one of the trio who had lost their jobs.
Her successor John Major was in power for five years before criticism of his leadership reached such a crescendo in 1995 that he was forced into a ‘back me or sack me’ leadership contest with John Redwood.
Johnson, on the other hand, is already facing as much flak from his own side as from the Labour Leader Keir Starmer and the ferocity of the attacks is remarkable for a politician still wearing his Prime Ministerial ‘L’ plates.
May remarked this week that, in her nine years as a member of the National Security Council, “I listened to the expert independent advice from national security advisors”. She scornfully described Frost as “a political appointee with no proven expertise in national security”.
The dagger she was wielding had already been sharpened by Mitchell, the Sutton Coldfield MP, who said on my podcast last month that the Government’s merger of the Department for International Development with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was “a quite extraordinary self-inflicted wound and a terrible mistake”.
Seeking an explanation for the ferocity of the attacks so early in his premiership, I spoke to a senior Brexiter who has worked closely with Johnson who explained that the circumstances of his accession to Downing Street had emboldened backbenchers.
“The whole circumstances of his election are upside down,” they said. “Normally you would be a leader in opposition for several years, but Boris came in all of a sudden after Theresa May on the pretext of delivering Brexit. There are some backbenchers who can’t believe he’s Prime Minister.
“They see him someone who was an MP, went off to become Mayor of London, came back as an MP again and before you know it was Prime Minister. They don’t regard him as one of them.”
According to this analysis, the key to Johnson’s long-term survival among his own MPs rests on his ability to deliver a post-Coronavirus economic bounce, particularly in the ‘Red Wall’ of former Labour seats in the Midlands and the north won by the Conservatives in 2019.
One senior Conservative told Byline Times that Johnson’s position isn’t under immediate threat, but that his long-term prospects were less certain.
“His leadership isn’t going to come under pressure just yet – not while we’re in the midst of a crisis, but he’s already seen as lazy, slapdash and badly organised,” they said. “The smart question isn’t whether he’ll be challenged now, but whether he’ll still be there to lead us into the next election.”