16 January 2022

Weekly Briefing: Red meat in the last chance saloon

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Won’t someone think of the journalists?

Writing about politics these days is a fraught task. Your withering takedown of the last PartyGate scandal has barely hit the news-stands before details of another lockdown booze-up emerge.

The latest, at least as I write, is of regular ‘Friday wine time’ and staff bringing a dedicated booze fridge into the heart of government, mid-pandemic. Shortly before that came details of a knees-up thrown the night before a Royal funeral, with a suitcase of Co-Op wine and a child’s broken swing – all of which could have been scripted to create maximum hostility, not just from Labour or the public, but from Conservative MPs too.

As terrible as all this clearly is for Boris Johnson, it’s worth remembering that his precarious position isn’t just about parties. The PM had already burned through political capital with his bizarrely inept handling of the Owen Paterson scandal, which led to further humiliation in the North Shropshire by-election.

Before that were the U-turns over free school meals, where the Government was outfoxed by arguably England’s most effective left-winger, Marcus Rashford. June’s by-election defeat in Chesham and Amersham, if not definitive in itself, indicated serious dissatisfaction among the traditional Tory base.

Johnson would be in a stronger position too if his administration had a clearer sense of policy direction. The pandemic notwithstanding, we’re more than two years into this government and still haven’t had the Levelling Up white paper. At the moment, it feels like a disparate bunch of policies – from transport to health to housing – are simply thrown into a big bag marked ‘Levelling Up’.

We don’t have much of a plan for growth or the cost of living, we do have a big hike in national insurance coming up – scratching that tax rise should be the minimum requirement if the Government really wants to focus on bread-and-butter issues.

As the i’s Paul Waugh notes, there are few big Commons votes due in the coming months. That inevitably means more focus on political machinations, rather than policy. For a PM who sold himself on ‘getting the job done’, there is an awful lot of policy work still on the to-do list.

So, what’s next?

Along with a series of hirings-and-firings, Johnson’s team are reportedly working on ‘Operation Red Meat’, a series of eye-catching policies designed to regain the political initiative: more money for the NHS (again), a ‘booze ban’ at 10 Downing St, freezing the TV licence for two years and getting the military to stop boats in the Channel. None of which sounds as though it’s terribly likely to save the PM’s bacon.

Unsurprisingly, the papers hum with speculation about his future. But, as I said on the CapX Podcast on Friday, we ought to approach such reports with a wry eye. Some of those saying ‘Johnson is finished’ are simply looking the opinion polls, while others may hope predicting his demise becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Meanwhile many MPs seem to be biding their time, waiting for Sue Gray’s report and hoping against hope for a reset at the top.

And although the distress on the Tory benches is very real, as our editor-in-chief writes today, the mechanics of unseating their leader are pretty challenging – 54 letters of no confidence to trigger a vote, then 180-odd to actually win, and if the rebels lose they can’t have another go for a year. Even a desperately beleaguered Theresa May survived such a vote, and only resigned in May 2019 after the Tories got 9% in the European elections.

Johnson will surely be looking at May’s local elections nervously, but while the PM is undoubtedly down, I wouldn’t rule him out just yet.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.