Boris Johnson has moved to mollify angry backbenchers disillusioned by the number of government U-turns, admitting the government has been forced to backtrack on multiple issues throughout the pandemic but insisting it is on the right course.
The prime minister has been facing a restive party as MPs return to Westminster, with several senior Conservatives expressing public dismay over the disaster of A-Level grading and chaotic communication over quarantine periods and the use of masks in schools and shops.
Addressing cabinet ministers, Johnson acknowledged it had been “necessary to tack here and there”.
“In the last few months we’ve been sailing into the teeth of a gale, no question,” Johnson said. “And I am no great nautical expert but sometimes it is necessary to tack here and there in response to the facts as they change, in response to the wind’s change, but we have been going steadily in the direction, in the course we set out and we have not been blown off that course.”
Vocal critics of the government’s strategy include Charles Walker, the vice-chairman of the 1922 Committee, who said the government appeared like it “licks its finger and sticks it in the air to see which way the wind is blowing”.
It is understood members of the 1922 Committee, which represents Conservative backbenchers, are seeking an urgent meeting with Johnson to relay colleagues’ concerns. Tory MPs are due to meet on Wednesday, in a hybrid 1922 Committee meeting both online and in person, though no speaker has been confirmed.
“Many of us are extremely concerned that the government says one thing one minute and 24 hours later, it changes,” another member of the 1922 executive committee said. “Ministers have been on the TV on Saturday and Sunday insisting ‘this is the way forward’ and it’s an about-turn by Monday afternoon.
“You just think: plan these things properly and say, we’re responding to the science. Don’t deny it until you inevitably have to cave in. Some of us could see the A-level fiasco coming a mile off and that has really dented confidence.”
MPs were particularly angered by Gavin Williamson’s handling of the exam results algorithm, which downgraded almost 40% of students’ A-level grades, at first defended by the government and then ditched in favour of teacher-assessed grades.
Other flashpoints included the wearing of masks in secondary schools in England, at first discouraged and then introduced as mandatory in lockdown areas.
Johnson’s spokesman suggested U-turns were an inevitable part of responding to an unprecedented situation.
“We have been responding to a global pandemic with an entirely novel virus and we have been guided by the scientific advice and as more is learned about the virus then we have ensured we have taken the right steps to keep the public safe,” he said. “But the PM is clear the government will not be knocked off course of levelling up the country.”
Speaking at the first cabinet meeting after the summer recess, the prime minister said there would be further outbreaks of “this wretched Covid” but said he was “absolutely confident” those outbreaks could be dealt with.
Johnson also told cabinet ministers employees were “going back to the office in huge numbers across our country and quite right too”, though a Downing Street spokesman was unable to immediately provide evidence of a significant rise in the number of commuters.
Concerned about the impact on city centres of the shift towards home-working, the government is expected publicity campaign in the coming days to encourage more workers to return to the office.
“We will continue to get this country moving and to defeat the virus but at the same time we are getting on as you all know with delivering on our promises and we haven’t stopped, like the teachers who’ve been hard at work keeping their schools going,” he said. “From this crisis we will build back better in this country and we will build back faster, and we will build back greener.”
Borrowing a phrase from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, Johnson promised a “new green industrial revolution for the UK” and said there would be “some very exciting announcements we are preparing to make in the autumn, that I believe will help to deliver not only a cleaner, greener country but hundreds and thousands of new green jobs across the UK”.
He said there was “still going to be some turbulence ahead and of course things are still going to be difficult on the economic front and of course we still need to get this disease absolutely out of our systems but I am absolutely confident that if we continue in the way that we have that there will be calmer days, brighter days and calmer seas ahead of us.”
Source: The Guardian