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When Boris Johnson barrelled into the scrum of Conservative party conference in Birmingham two years ago, he received a welcome more suited to a rockstar than a backbencher.
Some breathless delegates had waited four hours to be part of the 1,500-strong audience for his speech at a fringe event. They cheered their hero uproariously, as he condemned Theresa May’s Brexit deal as an “outrage” that would trap the UK “in the tractor beam of Brussels”.
This year, there will be no live audience at the conference; and the hype, which surrounded Johnson when he was the “prince across the water”, seems a distant memory.
A poll of grassroots members conducted by the ConHome website on the eve of the conference found just 28% thought Johnson was dealing with the coronavirus pandemic well; 63% said he was dealing with it badly.
As the government lurches from one U-turn to another, antagonising a growing number of Tory MPs, those sympathetic to Johnson blame his powerful advisers, including Dominic Cummings, for curtailing the boosterish “Boris” they knew and loved.
“People feel that Boris is not the Boris he was. Something has happened to him,” said one erstwhile supporter.
Steve Baker, the ringleader of this week’s 80-strong backbench rebellion over coronavirus restrictions, likened Johnson to Tolkein’s King Théoden, “under the spell” of his advisers.
“When Theoden awakes, and I mean Boris, everything will come right,” Baker said.
At a recent meeting with the executive of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, to feed back the mood of the restive parliamentary party to the prime minister, members were taken aback when Johnson arrived with a “praetorian guard” of seven aides.
“It was insane. One of the advisers walks up and gives him a paper to read out. It was suffocating. He’s out of the hospital, but the special advisers are keeping him in intensive care.”
For veteran Tory MPs always sceptical about Johnson’s suitability for the job of prime minister, there is no surprise at the fumbled communications and the sense he is not on top of policy detail.
When asked whether the shine has come off Johnson’s premiership, one former cabinet minister replied tartly: “If you drop something which is entirely ornamental into a corrosive acid bath, it tends to lose its appeal.”
Out in the country, Tory members’ scepticism about Johnson comes despite the fact that most will not have been at the sharp end of the latest coronavirus restrictions, which have created a complex patchwork of curbs imposed across much of north-east and north-west England.
Yet the bungles and mistakes still rankle.
One Tory MP in a constituency in southern England said his local members were often small business-owners or professionals, who were bewildered at what they saw as a clownish lack of professionalism in Downing Street. “It’s like ‘carry on coronavirus’, with Boris as Sid James and Matt Hancock as Kenneth Williams,” he said.
For the red wall MPs and their local associations, Johnson remains the leader who swept them to victory last December, in seats they hardly dared hope they could win. Many remain inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt … for the moment, at least.
Aidan Ruff, a party member of 31 years, is president of Northumberland Conservatives association, which covers Hexham, Wansbeck, Berwick, and Blyth Valley. He said Tory members in the area had been broadly understanding.
“I think most people think he’s making the best of a bad job. That’s the impression I get. The only grumble I’ve heard is people sort of saying, ‘Can we not get more testing done?’ Because that’s obviously the key.
“The secondary one is probably messaging … how lockdown rules apply. It’s kind of really simple, just keep yourselves away from people if you’re not well. It doesn’t really need to be a lot more complicated than that.”
Asked about Johnson’s poor polling among party members, Ruff said: “This is not Boris’s natural field of play, so I think he was always going to have difficulty with this … Fighting a pandemic, it’s a very technical thing, it’s not his forte.”
He added: “The pressure he must be under at the minute, how he can keep a smile on his face, I have no idea. Most people would be running round in circles flapping their arms screaming.”
Julian Arnold, the chairman of the Conservative association in Blackburn, which has also endured localised restrictions, was also sympathetic to Johnson .
“I wouldn’t have his job for all the tea in China,” said Arnold. “We made him our leader, the country elected him as leader but there are idiosyncrasies with Boris, you know what I mean? I do get from members, ‘Well, that’s Boris, isn’t it?’”
Most MPs representing red wall seats appear equally inclined to give Johnson the benefit of the doubt – but some report that their constituents are chafing against the latest coronavirus restrictions.
“A lot of that good will is still there,” said one MP elected in 2019.
But they also highlighted concerns among Conservative colleagues, especially about the 10pm curfew for hospitality businesses, which they described as a “kick in the guts to our local service sector”.
“This measure, particularly, is causing us real concerns locally. As one fellow Tory MP in a red wall seat said to me, ‘We’ve gone from eat out to help out, to drink up and piss off,” said the MP.
“It is a real, real problem now. It doesn’t feel like it’s being applied clearly and the lack of scientific evidence for it is also a major concern.”
But Sajjad Karim, who served as a Tory MEP for the north-west for 15 years until 2019, predicted that worries about jobs and the economy could eventually prompt the notoriously ruthless Conservative party to turn on the prime minister.
Asked about Tory support in red wall seats, Karim said: “Well, I think those MPs are going to be increasingly worried next year because many of them have been elected only for the first time, personally. And many of those seats have been won after many, many, many years, if not for the first time ever and their majorities are not great.”
If the prime minister appears to be a drag on their electoral prospects, he added, “They will move to remove Boris Johnson to try and protect their own position.”
Approval ratings can go up, as well as down, and much will depend on the economic fallout from the pandemic – and from Brexit.
A flurry of upbeat conference announcements are planned in an attempt to return to the optimistic mood of last December’s election landslide, and the “levelling up” agenda that was meant to define Johnson’s premiership.
If a vaccine emerges to allow something like normal life to return, and a Brexit deal is reached with the EU to limit the immediate fallout from the end of the transition period in January, even Johnson’s critics believe he could restore much of his lost popularity with the public.
But it is hard to imagine him ever being quite the conference pin-up he was two years ago.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: ‘Carry on coronavirus’: shine has come off Johnson as Tory conference begins | Politics