An increasingly desperate Boris Johnson has ordered his staff to step up personal attacks on the Labour leader Keir Starmer and his record as a lawyer, as confidence in the prime minister’s leadership collapses among Tory party members.
The Observer has been told that Johnson was so furious after last Wednesday’s prime minister’s questions – where he was asked to withdraw comments he made about the Labour leader and the IRA by the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle – that he turned on his staff for leaving him under-prepared, and asked them to come up with more attack lines on the Labour leader’s career as a lawyer.
“He was furious,” said a well-placed source. “He told his team and people at CCHQ [Conservative campaign headquarters] that he wanted them to go after Starmer’s legal record and double down on the attacks on him.”
Last week’s Commons row erupted after Starmer pressed Johnson at PMQs over the recent exams fiasco and his party’s succession of policy U-turns.
Johnson attempted to turn the tables, suddenly suggesting the Labour leader had somehow been sympathetic to the IRA because he had worked under Jeremy Corbyn. “This is a leader of the opposition who supported an IRA-condoning politician,” said Johnson, to the bemusement of MPs on all sides of the house.
An angry Starmer pointed out he had in fact spent five years of his legal career prosecuting IRA terrorists and working with the intelligence services to bring terrorists to justice. Despite Hoyle’s request for Johnson to apologise he refused to do so.
A Labour source said: “If Boris Johnson wants to have a debate with Keir about past careers then bring it on. While Keir was a human rights lawyer or director of public prosecutions Johnson was being sacked for lying.”
Last night Downing Street claimed it was “not true” that Johnson had blamed his staff for his performance at PMQs or that he had said to anyone that he wanted to prepare more attacks on Starmer over his time as a lawyer.
But increasingly his and the government’s performances are causing alarm among Tory MPs, and disquiet in Whitehall.
Some senior Conservatives are beginning to worry that Starmer is regularly outperforming the prime minister at the weekly confrontation on Wednesdays. A senior Tory MP said: “It is the issue of competence that we worry about against Starmer.”
As the country faces a possible Covid-19 second wave and the prospect of an economically damaging no-deal Brexit, there is evidence that the wider Tory party is losing faith in Johnson’s ability to lead them against Starmer – and signs that the chancellor Rishi Sunak has become the new favourite of the Conservative grassroots.
According to the latest survey of Tory members by ConservativeHome, the website for party activists, Johnson is now in the bottom third of cabinet ministers in the satisfaction ratings – having been the runaway leader nine months ago.
In December 2019, shortly after the last general election, Johnson topped the net satisfaction ratings with a score of plus 92.5%, while Sunak was fourth on plus 78.5%.
Now Johnson has slumped to 19th place, below Baroness Evans, the leader of the House of Lords, with a rating of plus 24.6%. Sunak meanwhile is out in front on plus 82.5%.
Patrick Stevens, a former colleague of Starmer at the crown prosecution service who was head of its international division, said the Labour leader’s legal career was beyond reproach.
“I worked with Keir Starmer at close quarters for five years. His work with the CPS’s world-class counter-terrorism division – the most serious and sensitive the service faced – was unwavering.
“He was equally committed to the CPS playing its part internationally in the UK government’s national security strategies, leading the CPS to engage in some of the most difficult jurisdictions around the world.
“His efforts went way beyond just doing the job; personally I haven’t met anyone more committed to the rights of victims and witnesses and the protection of the public.”
On Saturday ministers were facing new difficulties in persuading civil servants to “get back to work” as soon as possible.
The government says it wants 80% of civil servants to be able to attend their usual workplaces at least once a week by the end of the month. But unions have described the government’s attitude as outdated.