Boris Johnson’s authority has been so weakened by recent events that he appears willing to gamble the nation’s health service and people’s lives in order to appease right wing Tory tabloids and his own backbench MPs.
The embattled prime minister’s personal nightmare before Christmas – featuring the key resignation of a staunch Brexit ally, a major rebellion by his backbenchers, a disastrous byelection and more Downing Street party-scandals in the last week alone – is becoming a very real risk to everyone.
An emergency Cabinet meeting on Monday saw the government divided over new Covid restrictions to curb the spread of the Omicron variant despite a Sage scientist warning their “dithering” will lead to “tens of millions” of infections in the weeks ahead.
Despite the scientist’s caution Johnson claimed the arguments for and against tighter measures were “finely balanced” while explaining the situation is “extremely difficult”. Hence the decision to delay making a decision.
The government will “keep the data under constant review – hour by hour” Johnson assured, adding his government “reserve the possibility of taking further action to protect the public and protect our NHS. We won’t hesitate to take that action.”
Which might be before Christmas, depending on the data, or after Christmas, depending on his MPs. While it is an astonishing situation for a Conservative prime minister with a huge majority and a parliamentary party purged of dissenters, it is a very dangerous situation for the country being engulfed by another Covid wave.
Labour’s Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary said Johnson is “too weak to stand up to his own backbenches, many of whom have no plan beyond ‘let the virus rip’
“Today, while businesses across the country wonder if they can continue to trade, and families make frantic calls about whether they will see each other this Christmas, true to form the prime minister has put his party before the public.
“Rather than set out a clear plan for the country, he has chosen to protect himself from his own MPs by simply not saying anything. Boris Johnson is unfit to lead.”
Police warn about public compliance
People are already deciding for themselves what to do and business is paying the price of cancellations, no shows and lost sales. The travel sector is reeling again and the UK itself, having scrapped its red list countries and mandatory quarantine, now finds itself red-listed by a growing number of countries, including Germany and France, who are banning visitors from Britain because of fears about the Omicron variant.
Police have warned that public compliance with new Covid restrictions will be damaged by the Downing Street parties scandal – a warning that was made before a week of further revelations, including one about a party featuring the cabinet secretary Simon Case, the country’s top civil servant who was, until the story broke, investigating the parties scandal.
Even more apparent breaches of lockdown in Downing Street were published by the Guardian on Monday, with a photo showing Johnson and his wife – along with 17 other people – gathered for wine and cheese in the Downing Street garden in May last year. On the exact same day, then health secretary Matt Hancock told the nation to keep to the social distancing rules that are clear and easy to follow and which forbade people from different households mixing up, even outside (within 2 metres).
“Those were people at work, talking about work,” an exasperated Johnson repeated when questioned about the 19 people gathered during lockdown, drinking wine and beer and eating cheese.
Peppa Pig and other self inflicted wounds
The latest revelations come on top of Thursday’s disastrous byelection that saw a Conservative 23,000 majority wiped out by a Liberal Democrats landslide in the seat. The wound caused by losing a constituency held by the Tories for almost 200 years was self inflicted – just like the lockdown parties-scandal and the Peppa Pig speech to the CBI – with the byelection caused by the government’s attempt to change the law to save Tory MP Owen Paterson from a sleaze scandal.
MPs were forced to vote for legislation seen as protecting guilty MPs, only for it to be abandoned in a humiliating U-turn by the government the very next day. Their simmering resentment boiled over last week when 99 Tory MPs voted against the government’s latest Covid restrictions for England.
The decline of the PM’s personal standing and popularity among his backbenchers was revealed by leaked screenshots from a Tory WhatsApp group of MPs that showed Steve Baker kicking culture secretary Nadine Dorries out of the group after she stood up for the PM and called Johnson a “hero”.
“Enough is enough” posted Baker to the “Clean Global Brexit” group of around 100 Tory MPs, under the notification he had “removed” Dorries.
“About time, thanks Steve,” replied arch Brexiteer Andrew Bridgen MP.
It was time enough too for Lord David Frost, the PM’s chief Brexit negotiator and oven-ready deal maker, who sensationally quit the government and added further to Johnson’s woes by amplifying the levels of dissent within the party.
Frost’s Saturday night bombshell cited the government’s “direction of travel” and his opposition to Covid Plan B restrictions as reasons for his resignation.
Losing such a key ally only compounds Johnson’s party problems and comes at the worse time for a country requiring its leader to focus fully on protecting its citizens and health service rather than one battling to protect their own premiership.