Boris Johnson is about to find out what happens when a party turns on its leader

Has the magic sauce begun to curdle?- Owl


Could it be that blatant rank hypocrisy is Boris Johnson’s kryptonite? His superhuman political performances have certainly defied belief for most of the two years he has occupied No 10. Yet the recent controversy about his attempting to dodge self-isolation via some suspiciously convenient “pilot scheme” seems to have been something of a final straw, and he finds his poll ratings sliding, along with his authority in his own party.

Disappointing by-election performances in Chesham and in Batley suggest he is no longer such a winner. Politics, arguably, is returning to a more normal pattern, the vaccine bounce has faded and the instinct to rally behind the leader in a crisis is evaporating.

It is quite the switchback. This most unlikely of premiers has carried all before him. Mr Johnson managed to unseat the previous incumbent, albeit Theresa May did herself no favours; win the party leadership against some credible, if more conventional, contenders by a comfortable margin; win a near-landslide general election victory; get some of the formalities of Brexit done; survive Covid, personally and politically; lose his closest adviser; and get married to Carrie Symonds and start another family, with a baby on the way. If nothing else, he has confounded his critics and proved himself unusually resilient.

All of a sudden, however, just as people are daring to hope for a return to normality after the pandemic, the prime minister finds his personal ratings tumbling. His ratings among Conservative Party members, where he has long been popular, if not always spectacularly so, have collapsed, and he is barely in positive approval territory. Much the same goes for the view the public takes of him. They regard him as dishonest and disorganised.

His MPs, many of whom owe their parliamentary seats to his campaigning, are dissatisfied. Their grievances are disparate – some fear the effects of ending the £20-a-week top-up to universal credit, many dislike the talk of vaccine passports, others in the home counties feel neglected over housing and planning, those in the “red wall” wonder, with good reason, if there is anything more to “levelling up” and “build back better” than slogans.

Parliamentary revolts will be attempted and the party conference (with or without a requirement for a vaccine passport) might be an awkward affair. An especially weak and wobbling prime ministerial speech on “levelling up” his economic vision for the nation unnerved many hoping for a glimpse of substance. And the brief attempt to evade the Covid isolation rules that govern the rest of the nation made the prime minister look both hypocritical and, when rapidly reversed, weak. The very worst of all worlds.

It all seems bleak for the Conservatives, and it could easily get worse. The end of furlough, the comprehensive spending review, hints of higher interest rates, the lingering drag of Brexit – all will hit jobs, wages and living standards. Post-Covid, there is little money left to indulge Mr Johnson in his free-spending habits and to bribe voters in marginal seats with their own money. Absurdities such as the tunnel to the Isle of Man and the new royal yacht will have to be abandoned. His ministers, especially chancellor Rishi Sunak, will have to become more assertive and insist on a more traditional, collegiate style of government, though they will probably fail to restrain him.

Under Mr Johnson, life for the Conservatives will become increasingly difficult as the voters discover that there is even less to the prime minister than meets the eye. For them, in the Brexit era, he was the right man for the job. In the Covid crisis he was the only leader they had, and they had to make the best of it. Now, though, the political climate has changed again, and radically. Like Ms May and David Cameron before him (who he did so much to undermine), Mr Johnson could soon find out what happens when he no longer looks like an electoral asset.