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Conservatives are panicking but they are unlikely to abandon chaotic captain

London Letter: Shape-shifting Johnson amid mayhem is still deemed genius campaigner

If Boris Johnson thought he was throwing down a dead cat when he brought forward to Wednesday evening the announcement of new coronavirus restrictions, he chose the wrong animal. Instead of lying mute as a distraction from last year's Downing Street parties, the cat leapt up from the table in the House of Commons, darted over the despatch box with claws bared and attacked the government front bench.

That, at least, is how health secretary Sajid Javid may have felt when he announced the new measures to shouts of "resign" from his own benches. Anger over Johnson's mishandling of the Downing Street party story fused with libertarian Conservatives' outrage over the restrictions.

"I am sorry that the secretary of state seems to have gone native so fast and has come forward with this announcement without even doing a cost/benefit analysis," Shipley MP Philip Davies said.

“Will he give me any reason at all why I should not tell my constituents to treat these new rules in exactly the same way that No 10 Downing Street treated last year’s rules?”


Former government chief whip Mark Harper said he was concerned that the government's credibility had taken a hit in recent weeks, first over the Owen Paterson affair and now over last year's Christmas parties.

“Why should people at home, listening to the prime minister and the secretary of state, do things that people working in No 10 Downing Street are not prepared to do?” he said.

Sleaze and sanctions

This was a version of Keir Starmer’s attack line at prime minister’s questions when he accused the government of acting as if there was one law for them and one for everyone else. He used the same line last month when the prime minister tried to change the rules to protect Paterson from sanctions over sleaze and it is his most effective so far against the government.

Johnson’s hellish Wednesday began with him having to apologise for a video that showed Downing Street aides apparently laughing about the party on December 18th last year about which he had spent a week dissembling. He had some good news on Thursday morning when his wife Carrie gave birth to a healthy baby girl but that announcement was overshadowed within minutes by fresh questions about his conduct.

Johnson's MPs see him as a politician with little interest in or talent for governing but a genius at campaigning

The Electoral Commission fined the Conservative Party almost £17,800 for not reporting a donation of £52,801 to help Johnson to pay for an extravagant refurbishment of his Downing Street flat. More seriously for the prime minister, the commission's report suggested that he misled the independent ministerial ethics adviser over what he knew about the donation.

Famously, the Conservative parliamentary party has only two settings – complacency and panic – and there is no mistaking which way the dial is turned right now. For weeks, Conservative MPs have been obliged to defend the government over unforced errors like the Paterson affair and the Downing Street parties, only to look foolish after the official line changes.

Character flaws

For the first time in more than a year, Labour has drawn level or overtaken the Conservatives in a number of successive polls and Starmer's recent shadow cabinet reshuffle has made his operation appear sharper. Johnson's net disapproval rating keeps getting worse and, on the basis of poll numbers, he is now a liability for the Conservatives.

Few of his MPs see it that way, however, even if they are merciless in private about his faults, his character flaws and his chaotic Downing Street operation. They see him as a politician with little interest in or talent for governing but a genius at campaigning and most of them would still prefer to go into an election under his leadership rather than under any of his potential rivals.

His protean quality, which makes him ideologically unreliable and careless of personal loyalty, also allows him to shift his shape at will to appeal to working-class voters in former Labour heartlands as easily as to traditional Conservatives in the shires. Neither of the two leading alternatives, chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak and foreign secretary Liz Truss, have yet persuaded enough Conservative MPs that they can hold together the electoral coalition Johnson created to win an 80-seat majority two years ago.

A poor byelection result in North Shropshire next week will further rattle Tory nerves and there will be many more opportunities to panic as the economy enters choppy waters next year. But unless Johnson self-destructs in a scandal yet to be imagined, the Conservatives will stick unhappily with their chaotic captain, their fates fastened to his.