Tory Unrest at Boris Johnson Grows With Care Vote, Speech Fiasco
Boris Johnson faces more unrest within his ruling Conservative Party, as an ill-judged speech to U.K. businesses and a major rebellion in Parliament on Monday added to a slew of recent missteps and chaotic U-turns.
Already struggling to reassert his authority after mishandling a crisis over Tory ethics -- he compared it himself to a car crash -- Johnson suffered a setback when a significant number of Tories refused to support his flagship policy to overhaul social care funding. The government’s usual working majority of about 80 votes in Parliament was cut to just 26.
That blow came hours after the prime minister gave a rambling speech to Britain’s biggest business lobby, in which he lost his place, compared himself to Moses and jokily referenced Russian communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin.
Though there’s no sign yet that senior Tories see the need for a change of leadership, unease at his recent performance is growing and it’s clear in the House of Commons that the party has become harder for Johnson to control.
Part of the problem lies in the divergent interests in the party since he won a landslide general election victory in 2019. That included many traditional Labour seats -- often in northern England and the Midlands -- switching to the Tories, drawn to Johnson’s promise to end the wrangling over Brexit.
But it also created tensions among the Tories, which played out in his failed attempt to block Parliament’s suspension of former minister Owen Paterson for lobbying violations this month. MPs from those new Conservative seats complained they were dragooned into supporting Paterson, only for the government to backtrack, triggering days of negative headlines.
Johnson gave northern MPs more reason to grumble last week when he announced a scaled-back railway program, which will still cost the government 96 billion pounds ($128 billion) but didn’t deliver in full on its promise.
Then came Monday’s vote on Johnson’s plan to fix what he called the U.K.’s “broken” social care system. There had been a sense that the government had done the hard part in September, by convincing Tory MPs to back a 12-billion pound tax hike to pay for the policy. The aim was to ensure few elderly people have to sell their homes or assets to pay for support.
Yet critics said a tweak last week to how the new lifetime cap on care costs is calculated undermined the benefits of the plan, especially for poorer people. That angered 19 Tories enough to vote against the government, with dozens more abstaining.
Johnson’s position remains secure. To force a leadership contest, 15% of Tory MPs must move against him, and there’s no sign of that level of unrest. The lack of perceived viable alternatives is a key factor.
Still, there are warning signs for Johnson. Though the next general election is not due until 2024, the Tories have slumped in the polls in recent months. A 13-point lead over Labour in July has been cut to just 2 points, according to a YouGov survey conducted between Nov. 17 and Nov. 18.
While not testing their national support, the Conservatives also face elections in at least two parliamentary seats in the coming weeks. Heavyweights including Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak were sent to help campaigning in Old Bexley and Sidcup as Tory poll numbers slumped.
Yet a bigger problem for Johnson, who has long relied on a reputation for charm and charisma over attention to detail, may be the recent examples of how he has misjudged the public mood, including over Paterson.
Monday’s speech in northeast England to the Confederation of British Industry is another case. It was an opportunity for Johnson to convince voters he’s still serious about his ‘leveling up’ agenda after he disappointed with his rail plans.
What followed was a haphazard speech in which Johnson did an impression of a petrol car accelerating -- “Broom broom brah brah!” -- and asked attendees if they had ever visited the Peppa Pig World theme park in southern England, hundreds of miles from where they were sitting.
“It was a flop. It was a ramble. There was lots of disjointed initiatives, some that obviously had no relevance at all,” Juergen Maier, vice-chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, told the Guardian newspaper.
Johnson was asked by a reporter if he was O.K. after the speech.
“I think that people got the vast majority of the points I wanted to make,” he replied. “I thought it went over well.”
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.