There can be no question that Boris has lost support. A poll of Conservative supporters of cabinet ministers ranked him 24th out of 25th, 25th being Gavin Williamson, the education secretary and widely seen as the most incompetent minister in this, a government not noted for its competence…writes Mihir Bose
That Boris Johnson may be out of No 10 Downing Street by April was the confident forecast made a couple of weeks ago by a friend who was an MP and knows his politics. His point was the Conservative party worships power and when it feels power may be slipping away then it strikes.
Look at what happened to Mrs Thatcher. Three times Mrs Thatcher won the Conservatives elections, each time increasing the majority and making her brand of Conservativism the dominant philosophy of our times. It still survives even though Rishi Sunak has emerged as a surprising Tory socialist. But the moment the Conservative MPs felt she had lost support she was turfed out. I was in India when Mrs Thatcher was ousted. I rang a friend of mine, the very insightful and well informed political commentator Nigel Dudley, and told him that people in India could not work out how a three times winner and the dominant political figure of her age could be dethroned in such a fashion. His answer was that when Tory MPs felt they might lose their seats in the election they acted. This ruthlessness in the Tory can never be underestimated.
When Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee, is one of those speaking against the government we know Tory MPs are very restless. He is in effect the shop steward of the backbenchers and a stanch loyalist who traditionally supports the leader. When he turns against the government this has echoes of how the 1922 committee was formed. In 1922 Conservative MPs meet in the Carlton Club and decided that they did not want any longer to be part of a coalition with the Liberals. It brought down the government and in the election that followed the Conservatives came to power.
There can be no question that Boris has lost support. A poll of Conservative supporters of cabinet ministers ranked him 24th out of 25th, 25th being Gavin Williamson, the education secretary and widely seen as the most incompetent minister in this, a government not noted for its competence.
Boris’s failings are easy to identify. He can be a wonderful speaker and light up a room, but he is no executive. Having been at the Daily Telegraph when he was a columnist I know how quickly he can grasp ideas. When BskyB bid for Manchester United, Boris, who had no awareness of what it meant, rang me to ask about the bid. When reading his column I was impressed by how quickly he had understood things.
But running a government, let alone during a pandemic which has posed the most horrendous issues any government has faced since the Second World War, is an entirely different matter. It requires not an ability to spin words or make jokes or show of his knowledge of ancient Greece, but skill in leading a team, consideration of the issues and the taking of decisions which will stand the test of time. You cannot make light of the pandemic by saying ‘sing happy birthday when washing your hands’ or that the aim is to squash the sombrero one minute and then give stern warnings about imposing penalties for those breaking the law the next. The main charges against this government are that it has consistently over promised, that it has changed courses at times so bewilderingly that even Boris cannot remember what the rules are, and that it has given no indication that it is knows where it is going or how to get there. Unlike his hero Churchill he has not got a cabinet which looks capable of coping with the various issues the pandemic has thrown up. It is always behind the curve and is always apologising for mistakes; the latest a technological failure which lead to the underreporting of thousands of infections. Given all this it is not surprising that Boris Johnson is very far from being the master of all he surveys, a position he could claim when he won the election last December.
But for all the manifest faults of Boris and this government I am not entirely convinced that the country is as against him as some commentators think. In the last month I have been to middle England, that part of this land that is proud that it never changes and can always claim to speak for England. What struck me is how, compared to London, they had taken the lockdown and all that the pandemic has brought in its wake, very much in their stride. It made me think that the common jibe thrown at us Londoners, that we live in a bubble, may not be far off the mark.
At a little market town when our friend’s car broke down the AA man who had been on furlough and was now back at work was philosophical. “Every day is a school day”. A very cheerful way of looking at things. He was certainly not blaming Boris or the government for what had happened.
My wife and I had our first coffee in a café since the lockdown and a lady who moved from Pimlico to the shires said the pandemic had made no difference to her life.
We visited a shop in Bourton-on-water often described as the Venice of England. We were the only customers and the owner said this year not only were there no Americans but also no Chinese, and their contribution to this country’s tourist industry is now very significant. Yet she was very happy with the help dishy Rishi had given and had not a single word of criticism about how the government was doing.
Nor were any of the stall holders at the Farmers Market, despite talking about the problems they faced as a result of the pandemic, critical of Boris Johnson or the government.
In some ways it was very revealing how Cerney Gardens, a romantic, secret, place in the Cotswolds had adjusted to Coronavirus. The tearoom had delicious coffee walnut cakes. But no staff. You just helped yourself, wrote out what you had eaten and put the money in the honesty box. We were honest and then tried to work off our indulgence by going on a long walk.
Now, of course, these are my personal experiences and I am not saying that this means opinion polls showing Boris has lost support are wrong. But that we should not read too much into the opinion polls as we know how wrong they can be. People may be bewildered but I am not sure they want Boris to vacate No 10. Not yet anyway.
If they did of course we could by the spring have a new President in the White House and a new Prime Minister in No 10. But much as that would be welcome I think that is very unlikely. Trump has a solid base of support and Johnson, as Ken Livingstone admitted to me after he lost the London Mayor election, was the one Conservative he feared. Boris Johnson’s ability to win elections should never be underestimated. Also, the British public are not yet in a mood for change.