POLITICS
11/06/2020 07:08 BST | Updated 11/06/2020 18:01 BST

Tory Discontent Grows As Boris Johnson Faces Criticism Over Coronavirus

Insiders tell HuffPost UK plummeting polls, the Dominic Cummings affair and the PM's handling of Covid-19 are helping to spark MP revolts.

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When Boris Johnson stormed to election victory in December, he wasn’t expecting this - no one was.

Coronavirus has thrown both the country and the prime minister’s expectations for the next four years on their head.

Johnson may however have felt he was entitled to some loyalty for dragging the Tories from the dire depths of the Brexit chaos under Theresa May to an 80-seat majority in a matter of months.

Yet in the weeks since he recovered from his own near-fatal bout with Covid-19, he has faced a series of revolts from his own MPs.

From quarantine to US food imports, parliament’s return to easing the lockdown, the PM is now not only dealing with a national crisis of titanic proportions, but a growing sense of discontent on his own backbenches.

Some of those MPs feel this was inevitable given the scale of the crisis, the psychological impact of lockdown, and social distancing measures cutting contact with whips and ministers who can explain and cajole.

But there are also dark mutterings about the government’s handling of coronavirus and the fact the UK has one of the worst death tolls in the world.

“There’s clearly a muddle in how it’s all been handled and we’re now embarrassed, we’ve now got the second worst death rate in the world and we are being left behind,” says one senior MP.

“That is the big defining issue.”

A colleague simply adds: “It just all looks rather incompetent and a bit shit frankly.”

But while the likes of Steve Baker have put their heads above the parapet on issues like opposing the lockdown, Tory MPs have largely publicly supported the government’s broad handling of the crisis.

It’s when the government has done things that are simply “daft”, in the words of more than one MP, that Tories have rebelled.

The 14-day travellers’ quarantine plan, led by home secretary Priti Patel with the Home Office’s chief scientific adviser but apparently without approval from the government’s scientific advisory committee for emergencies (Sage), is a prime example.

“You do sort of get the feeling that it’s government by focus group on stuff like the quarantine measures,” one MP says.

“It’s popular but that doesn’t mean it’s sensible.

“And I wonder whether it would remain popular if you had to explain that this applied to you if you were coming back from holiday in Spain.”

The sense of a government scoring own goals was underlined by Jacob Rees-Mogg forcing MPs to form kilometre long queues to vote physically in the Commons when electronic voting had worked during lockdown. 

It triggered a rebellion of 31 Tories in a month when there had also been double figures rebellions on low quality US food imports and over plans to install the government’s “patsy” Bernard Jenkin to the chair of the liaison committee which questions the PM.

Asked why Tories were feeling so rebellious, one MP simply says: “I think the short answer to that is the government is trying to do silly things.”

The Dominic Cummings lockdown affair, which left MPs dealing with a deluge of emails as the government staked the party’s political capital on saving Johnson’s most favoured adviser, certainly did not help the mood.

It has led to speculation that some Tories are now rebelling by proxy to vent their anger at the handling of the Cummings affair. 

Discipline is harder to maintain “if you load up your colleagues’ inboxes with 400 emails a day”, one MP says.

Another says the episode has sparked a “gloves are off” attitude in the party.

“Dominic Cummings’ contempt for the party and MPs and for the due processes that we all excruciatingly submit ourselves to in order to get elected - people have noticed that.”

Even a normally loyal MP is unhappy: “I honestly thought Dominic Cummings would go.

“Those of us who spoke out weren’t actually criticising government policy.

“Government policy was to go home, not to travel to Durham, not to travel to Barnard Castle to test your eyesight.”

PA
The Dominic Cummings affair has damaged party discipline, according to some MPs

The episode would have particularly rocked new MPs elected in 2019 and defending small majorities in ex-Labour red wall seats.

Ex-minister Robert Goodwill says they were already experiencing “culture shock” as the volume of MPs’ work skyrocketed due to the crisis and ramped up the pressure.

It has been noted by more experienced MPs that several 2019-ers have spoken out against the government on certain issues in recent weeks.

Downing Street has also noticed, handing out parliamentary private secretary (PPS) roles to many of the new flock.

But some feel that the 2019 MPs will be more willing to call out the government if they feel their seats are threatened.

With Johnson’s personal poll ratings plummeting and Labour making significant ground on the Tories, it could be sparking discontent.

“You’ve got to remember there are a lot of people looking over their shoulder who have got very tiny majorities in red wall seats, who may only be here for one parliament unless we really make friends and influence people,” one MP says.

“If the government’s doing things they don’t like, they’re not going to support the government, they are going to go back home and say I voted against this.” 

The 2019 MPs were also ordered to stay at home barely three months after entering parliament.

Many of them will have been taking on new staff and learning the ropes before the lockdown hit.

And MPs across the board say it is difficult to maintain the “collegiate glue” that normally holds parties together when they are scattered across the country.

Even after returning to Westminster last week, only 15 Tory MPs are currently allowed into the Commons dining room at once, all sitting two metres apart under social distancing rules.

As a result, “decisions get made and people ask why did that happen, nobody explained why to me”, Bim Afolami noted on HuffPost UK’s Commons people podcast last week.

Goodwill also acknowledges: “We haven’t had the normal safety valves operating, and some people when the pressure has built up have sought to maybe express in public what they may have expressed in private.”

And a Whitehall source notes: “It’s much harder to say no to people in person. 

“It’s much easier to just ignore calls and do your own thing. 

“There’s little chance of bumping into the chief whip (in lockdown).”

Afolami has also been urging restless colleagues to ignore the polls, with the next election not due until 2024 at the earliest.

PA Wire/PA Images
Tory MPs in the so-called "red wall" are sitting on slim majorities

“What I keep telling everybody is - it’s four years to go... there’s a lot that needs to get done, there’s a lot that will happen,” he says.

“And people shouldn’t be looking so much at polls, people should just be thinking about getting the job done and the party staying together in the right place.”

Another newer MP also urges calm: “Every new leader comes in and has a honeymoon period.

“Put it into the context of Boris’s poll numbers at the start of the crisis, they were frankly unrealistic - they were over 50%.

“The polling has slipped but we’re still at the same level-ish as at the general election.”

But there are worries about Johnson’s performance.

“I think there are a lot of concerns about Boris’s health, coronavirus knocked him out quite badly,” the MP says.

“He basically worked too hard and came back too soon and he was basically damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.

“He should have had more time to recuperate. 

“There is that sort of concern.”

While it is by no means a majority view in the party, fears that the Labour leader Keir Starmer could exploit the new chinks in Johnson’s armour are beginning to crystallise.

One MP has noticed pollsters comparing Johnson’s falling ratings to the drop suffered by ex-PM John Major after Black Wednesday, from which he never recovered.

They say: “All Johnson’s worst features were exposed by a national crisis just when the Labour party picked someone who is excellent at exposing the failures of a slightly shambolic, cavalier, Brexit bunker in handling Covid.

“I think there’s a sense afoot that we’re going to lose the next election.

“It’s not yet over, if we bounce back strongly and chancellor Rishi (Sunak) does a really good job and if we find the sweet spot and have an economic strategy that works then we could own the recovery.

“But I think we are looking down the barrel of an horrendous six months.”

With votes coming up on food imports and potentially extending Sunday trading hours, there will be more rebellions to come.