Boris Johnson is facing pressure from his own party’s MPs to get out of his “bunker” and shake off his reliance on controversial adviser Dominic Cummings.
Confidence in the prime minister within his own party has been shaken by his handling of coronavirus, doubts over a Brexit deal and recent rows over lockdown restrictions, bizarre plans to send asylum seekers to the south Atlantic and threats to break international law.
Speaking to The Independent ahead of the PM’s crucial speech to this year’s virtual party conference, several MPs said he needed to assert more grip, with one saying it was time for an end to “presidential-style” government by a small group around the leader.
But despite frustration about “drift” and widespread acclaim for the performance of chancellor Rishi Sunak, there was little appetite for a change at the top, with many instead saying that they wanted to see “the old Boris” who was voted in by a huge majority by MPs and party members last year and won a landslide in last December’s election.
One backbencher, who asked not to be named, said: “We want him to lead us, but there has been a lot of confusion and sometimes he seems to be taking his lead from the scientists or from his advisers. I think he could be doing more to instil confidence in his troops.
“He talks a lot about ‘levelling up’ but I’m not sure the voters have a clear idea what that means. He needs to put a bit of flesh on the bones.”
A former minister suggested Mr Johnson’s administration had run out of steam under the double burden of the coronavirus outbreak and the search for a deal on Brexit.
“The wheels have fallen off Boris’s Brexit bandwagon and he is stuck in the Brexit Covid bunker,” the MP said.
Mr Johnson’s second conference as leader – taking place online after the planned Birmingham gathering was cancelled – comes after a difficult week in which he twice had to make concessions to buy off backbench rebellions over the Internal Market Bill and Coronavirus Act.
And it comes as talks on a free trade agreement with the EU reach their endgame, with the prime minister insisting that the onus is on Brussels to give ground if a no-deal Brexit is to be avoided at the start of 2021.
Stalwart Brexiteer Peter Bone, who joined the rebellion against Coronavirus Act powers allowing ministers to impose lockdown restrictions without a Commons vote, said the PM’s problems stemmed from his reliance on his most senior adviser.
“I think it has one simple answer, which is Dominic Cummings,” said Mr Bone.
“I think a lot of these decisions are being taken by unelected special advisers behind closed doors and they like making laws without parliamentary scrutiny and don’t have any regard for it. I think that is where the problem lies.”
But the Wellingborough MP recoiled from any suggestion that Mr Johnson’s position is in peril from his own MPs.
“Oh God, no,” he said. “No, no, no. We’re 100 per cent behind Boris.
“There’s a bit of a drift towards a presidential style-government with people like Dominic Cummings thinking they’re in the West Wing and that the president makes executive orders, so the prime minister making regulations is the same.”
Another lockdown rebel, Sir Desmond Swayne, agreed there was “no immediate danger” to the PM.
“I think there’s a lot of frustration, but I wouldn’t put it more than that,” he said. “I measure these things in votes. What people may grumble about with one another in the tea room is one thing. When it comes to being counted, it’s another.
“The frustration is there, but I wouldn’t say it’s particularly measurable yet. You’ve still got cheerleading for the Boris we used to know – where has he gone, won’t he come back?”
Sir Desmond said Mr Johnson needed to use Tuesday’s conference speech to “display the old Boris… display his fundamental commitment to the values that we thought he held, particularly in respect of our individual liberty and not being pushed around by big government. He’s got to convey that actually he is the man who is holding the line against crazed scientists who would go much further.”
Former cabinet minister David Gauke, who was thrown out of the party by Mr Johnson over his opposition to a no-deal Brexit, said it was “fairly clear there is a lot of discontent on the back benches” as the Covid crisis exposed shortcomings which were evident in Mr Johnson long before he was elected leader.
“Clearly the circumstances at the moment don’t play to Boris Johnson’s strengths,” said Mr Gauke. “There’s a great need for grip and grasp of the details, which has never been his strong suit.
“But I don’t think that comes as a surprise to anyone. If the Conservative Party had wanted a leader who was going to demonstrate grip and a grasp of detail, they should have chosen a different person. Boris Johnson is always going to be dependent on his advisers. That’s the nature of his leadership style.”
Another former minister expelled for opposing no-deal Brexit last year, but later readmitted to the party, Alistair Burt, told The Independent: “I think the mood for a lot of Tories is that they know the government has made mistakes but no one would trade places with them, because they know how tough it is for them and there is a lot of sympathy for them.
“They are in a fix. The country is in a fix. It’s difficult for the prime minister – this is not what he was built for, he was built to deliver a buccaneering new start for the country and that has been impossible. It’s quite patently not what he expected from the job, and that is difficult for him.”
Former Conservative leader Michael Howard, who spoke out loudly against the Internal Market Bill’s threat to overrule the Brexit divorce deal, said that the Johnson administration was facing problems “much more formidable” than those faced by the Thatcher and Major governments in which he served.
“What I think is a lot of the criticism is failing to take into account the enormity of the challenge the government faces and it’s the biggest – in my view – peacetime challenge a government has ever faced,” said Lord Howard.
“I have no doubt that with the benefit of hindsight in due course it will be possible to show they didn’t get everything right. I think it has to be borne in mind just how formidable the nature of the challenge is.”