Boris Johnson Is Making His Own Side ‘Miserable’ With U.K. Virus Plans
(Bloomberg) -- Boris Johnson’s Cabinet meetings have become frosty affairs. To comply with U.K. pandemic rules, his senior ministers now gather in cavernous rooms in the Foreign Office, where they have to sit two meters apart with the windows wide open for ventilation, even as the weather turns colder.
It is not a happy scene, and Johnson himself is not enjoying the task that fate has dealt him as coronavirus takes hold across the country again, according to those who work closely with the British premier. To make matters worse, senior ministers have started to squabble, while restive members of Parliament in his own Conservative Party are forming pressure groups to lobby him publicly for their chosen goals.
“It is bloody miserable for everyone,” said one senior minister, speaking on condition of anonymity. Johnson’s office declined to comment.
Internal government projections show the U.K. is now on course for a prolonged second peak of infections. While the number of daily deaths will be lower than during first peak in the spring, it will remain high for longer and the whole of England is likely to require the tightest restrictions by mid-December, the modeling suggests.
On Monday, more than 50 Tories signed a letter to the prime minister warning that his strategy of targeting Covid hot spots is disproportionately damaging the northern districts they represent, with many now under the highest level of pandemic restrictions. They also pointed out that it was their constituencies that gave Johnson his majority of 80 parliamentary seats in last December’s election. The message was clear: Without them, he loses power.
The letter, coordinated by former minister and Johnson backer Jake Berry, is a graphic demonstration of all that’s gone wrong for the premier in the 11 months since his electoral triumph. Party discipline has fractured and his authority has been damaged, according to members of the government.
It was also the first significant salvo from the newly formed Northern Research Group, which may be the most serious threat to Johnson so far. The name is a conscious echo of the European Research Group, the alliance of Tory Brexit purists who blocked former Prime Minister Theresa May’s strategy for leaving the European Union before she was eventually forced out.
The NRG MPs, many of whom come from traditional Labour Party seats in northern England that fell to the Tories last year, have the numbers to defeat Johnson in parliamentary votes if they join forces with opposition parties.
So far, Johnson and his team of whips -- the officials responsible for enforcing party discipline -- have dodged the fights, and bought off a series of revolts with compromises in order to avoid exposing the extent of the divisions.
But the result is that discipline and unity have been damaged. Several internal pressure groups have formed in the party and MPs have launched a succession revolts over Covid strategy in the belief that Johnson will change his mind under pressure.
Many Conservatives elected in 2019 feel frustrated, isolated and bored, according to ministers and MPs. One Tory said the whips are too soft and must be willing to enforce their will on the new generation, while Johnson and his aides and allies should also be better at reaching out to their rank-and-file colleagues.
Covid restrictions are making it harder to keep the wider Tory team happy, with video calls plagued by technical difficulties. “Zoom is not the same,” one minister said. “You can’t reassure people as easily when you can’t see the whites of their eyes and Number 10 technology is rubbish so every time they try to do something it breaks.”
Adding to Conservative MPs’ anger is a sense that competence is in short supply at the top of government. The Treasury and Department for Education are engaged in a spat over who is to blame for the row over free meals for disadvantaged children during school holidays.
The Sun on Sunday newspaper reported that Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak had blocked soccer player Marcus Rashford’s campaign to extend free meals over the fall school break. One ally of Sunak privately hit back, saying education ministers had not even asked him for the cash.
According to another minister, the NRG are not only skeptical of Johnson but wary of Sunak, especially after the finance minister warned he could no longer commit to his promised three-year government spending program due to the economic uncertainty created by the pandemic.
The northern Tories fear that after a year or so, Sunak’s Treasury will revert to investing more in the party’s traditional support base, the economic heart of the country around London and the southeast, the minister said.
That would be potentially toxic for Johnson. His central pledge at the election was to deliver Brexit and reshape the U.K. economy to “level up” the forgotten parts of the country -- those depressed former industrial heartlands that voted Labour for decades but turned Tory last year.
Rumors persist that Johnson himself won’t stay on as leader to fight the next election, due in 2024. While his aides insist he is full of energy and committed to delivering his election agenda, some inside government aren’t so sure. The risk for the premier is that his northern Tories may not wait to find out.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.