Desperation is never a good look on a prime minister. It is rarely edifying to see a leader fighting for their political life against internal revolt. The techniques used for survival owe more to the dark arts than to lofty ideals.
For the second time in three years, a Conservative prime minister is facing a potentially terminal rebellion. But whereas Theresa May was brought down in an ideological fight over Brexit, Boris Johnson has been brought to the precipice by fundamental character flaws obvious to all when he was selected and elected. Then, he triumphed by persuading party members that these flaws mattered less than the election victory and political direction he offered.
With revelations of serial lockdown breaches by him and his Downing Street staff, that calculation has changed for many Tories. He is now endangered by the sense that these flaws may lead his party to defeat. Since Johnson cannot be sure that voters — who polls suggest are deserting him in droves — will return before the next election, his response is to prove his immediate worth to the MPs who will decide his fate.
This is the genesis of what has been dubbed Operation Red Meat: a plan to throw enough scraps to hungry MPs to persuade them not to devour the prime minister just yet. Johnson’s aim is to buy enough time to see if he can reverse the poll decline. Possession being the nine-tenths of the law that he respects, he is using the power of his office to try to buy off Tory rebels.
The plans are typically ill-conceived. Freezing the BBC licence fee may delight many backbenchers who hate the corporation. But a saving of roughly £8 a year will not insulate voters from the looming cost-of-living crisis. Another quarter-baked effort to offshore the handling of illegal asylum seekers pandered to the anti-immigration caucus but did not hold water. The next move, to end “Plan B” coronavirus restrictions in England, was likely to happen soon in any event, but the timing — with cases falling but still high — suggests the only data Johnson was following was opinion polling.
There has also been the usual combination of threats and favours from party whips. This is hardly exclusive to this government, but the fact that it has driven one senior backbencher to publicly allege “blackmail” suggests it has been more egregious than normal.
The danger here is that a leader already prone to undeveloped policy formulation is throwing out ideas purely to save his own skin. Even if he clings on, Johnson will remain weakened and on sufferance. This will mean the national interest is driven by the needs of political survival just as the country confronts mounting problems. After hitting a 30-year high of 5.4 per cent in December inflation may top 6 per cent in the spring, with gas and electricity bills due to jump in April.
Johnson is also weakened in his dealings with ministers, especially the Treasury. The relationship between premier and chancellor is the most crucial in politics and good government relies on neither being too weak to stand up to the other. A protracted battle for survival will leave this key relationship out of kilter.
The report into Downing Street gatherings expected next week from Sue Gray, a senior civil servant, will be the moment when wavering Conservative MPs choose whether to stick with him — at least until local elections in May. But this week’s spectacle of a beleaguered leader tossing out half-baked and poorly thought-out policies simply to shore up his own position has been unedifying. If anything is a sign that his time is up, it should be this.