“Tories at war in cabinet showdown” reported the Daily Mail on Friday. “Sleaze row boils over” said the Times. “Court of chaos” proclaimed the Spectator, surveying the disarray in 10 Downing Street. And these are just the headlines from the Conservatives’ own Fleet Street cheerleaders. Nevertheless, at the end of one of the prime minister’s worst political weeks, they tell a true story. There is a sea change in Britain’s political mood taking shape.
Boris Johnson’s once-triumphalist government is rattled. Sleaze has been the undoubted trigger for the fractious midterm mood coursing through the Conservative party. But it is not the whole cause, and therein lies the prime minister’s deeper problem. His press this week on the second jobs furore has been terrible, but there may be worse to come on other issues, not least on the economy, where Britain’s recovery lags behind the rest of the G7, and the cost of living, where fuel costs are set to spike again in the new year. This is one reason why Mr Johnson is desperately trying to ring the Brexit tocsin again over the Northern Ireland protocol that he signed but now wishes to disown.
The cabinet spent five hours on Thursday arguing about strategy, a sure sign that Mr Johnson, who hates sitting in long meetings, is under pressure. A minister who dared to suggest the sleaze row is damaging the party – which is obviously true – was publicly berated for disloyalty by the culture secretary, Nadine Dorries. MPs from the 2019 intake are meanwhile nervously eyeing their majorities as Labour edges ahead in the polls. Rishi Sunak’s superficially anodyne observation that the government “must do better” is being read as a reminder to Tories that a different kind of leadership is available. It never takes much to rouse the Tory party to succession speculation.
Mr Johnson may have hoped the final days of the Cop26 conference would allow him to change the subject. But the sleaze accusations are not going to disappear and, in any case, as the Glasgow conference headed into added time on Friday evening, a Cop26 to crow about had not yet been agreed. The prime minister will doubtless claim a triumph, whatever the final outcome, but the legacy of the Owen Paterson debacle is a party less ready to trust its leader and perhaps a country less ready to indulge him.
In any case, the Tories are not as fully united behind Mr Johnson’s net zero pledges and timetable as he would wish. Though there are few outright climate crisis deniers in the party ranks these days, there is no shortage of very politicised delayers. It is a fair bet that the more vulnerable Mr Johnson appears on other fronts, the less committed much of the party will become on the environmental policies he apparently sees as his legacy.
The biggest political threat to Mr Johnson this winter may nevertheless come from his and Mr Sunak’s stewardship of Britain’s sluggish economy. Figures this week show the recovery slowed in the third quarter due to Covid spikes and supply chain problems, which had a worse impact in the UK than elsewhere.
A winter combination of low growth, increased inflation, higher fuel costs and tax and interest rate rises is very much on the cards. If that happens, and if the government is blamed, it could quickly take this week’s Westminster anger and seed it deep into every community in the country.