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A senior backbencher told The Independent that disgruntled Tory MPs are currently holding their fire in the hope that the prime minister can shake off his recent run of disastrous miscalculations and political blunders.
But the MP warned that unless matters improve by Christmas, Conservatives – especially those with narrow majorities – will turn their focus to ensuring that the right leader is in place in time to give them the best chance of holding onto their seats in a general election expected in 2023.
Tory high command was on Wednesday doing its best to damp down speculation of as many as a dozen MPs writing letters of no confidence in Mr Johnson to the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, with whips insisting they were not aware of any issues of that kind.
And Conservative MPs made a display of support for Mr Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons, cheering his arrival at the despatch box, where he was flanked by chancellor Rishi Sunak in a public show of unity between the two men following reports of a rift between No 10 and the Treasury. Alongside Mr Sunak was foreign secretary Liz Truss, also suspected by some of being on manoeuvres for a possible future leadership contest.
But Mr Johnson was again forced onto the back foot, failing to deny Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s charge that he has breached his manifesto pledge that no one in England will have to sell their home to pay for care with a new policy that protects property only so long as a pensioner or their spouse is living in it.
In an uncomfortable moment for Tory MPs, Sir Keir repeated the question of a TV reporter after Mr Johnson’s shambolic speech to the CBI: “Is everything OK, prime minister?”
Labour released a dossier showing that the £186,000 threshold below which homes will be at risk under the government’s plans is higher than the average property price in 107 constituencies in the north of England and 34 in the Midlands, compared with zero in London and the southeast.
Constituencies where average-priced homes would be hit include Red Wall seats seized by Mr Johnson from Labour in 2019. These include Workington (average value £160,000), Barrow and Furness (£155,000), Don Valley (£155,000), Redcar (£133,000) and Bishop Auckland (£125,000).
Tory nerves were unsettled further by a new Savanta ComRes poll showing Mr Johnson’s lowest ever favourability ratings (minus-14) as prime minister as well as the lowest ratings (minus-16) for the government as a whole.
The survey of 2,184 UK voters gave Labour a lead over Tories for the second month in succession, with Sir Keir’s party on 38 per cent to 36 per cent for Conservatives.
The social care policy, slipped out last week just days before MPs were asked to vote on it, has fuelled discontent on the Tory backbenches already angered by unforced errors, including Mr Johnson’s abortive attempt to rewrite Commons standards rules to save Owen Paterson from punishment for sleaze and the botched announcement of a £96bn investment in rail for the north of England.
Some 19 MPs voted against the cap on care costs proposed by the prime minister after it emerged its design would force poorer pensioners to sacrifice up to 80 per cent of the value of their homes to care costs while wealthier people’s property will be protected.
But a senior Tory told The Independent that more worrying for Mr Johnson were the 45 to 50 MPs who abstained rather than backing the prime minister in Monday’s crunch vote.
The high levels of abstentions should be a “sign to No 10 that it needs to up its game”, said the MP, warning that if it doesn’t, “those people will start voting against”.
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The MP added: “People are not happy, but most of them are hoping things will get better in the near future. We have a couple of big announcements coming up before Christmas, and if they are handled well, the mood may change.
“Once we are into 2022, then people will be thinking the election is ‘next year’, and that will focus minds, particularly in marginal seats where they don’t know if they will keep their jobs. Colleagues backed Boris as leader because he looked like a winner, and if he doesn’t look like a winner at that point, they will be thinking they need a winner in post in time to prepare for the election.
“Margaret Thatcher won a thumping majority in 1987, and three years later, she was out. We Conservatives know how to change our leaders, unlike Labour who wait to lose the election before doing it.”
Many of the abstainers are unhappy with the government’s recent performance but want Mr Johnson to succeed and are waiting to see whether No 10 can step up its operation for the launch in the coming weeks of high-profile white papers setting out policy on social care and the levelling up agenda.
Following a series of U-turns, MPs who spoke to The Independent said they were reluctant to put their names to controversial policies in the knowledge that Mr Johnson may later reverse them.
They complain that on issues like the care cap and the integrated rail plan, little effort is made by the team around Mr Johnson to brief backbench MPs on upcoming announcements – or to provide them with “lines to take” after the schemes unravel.
Mr Johnson’s reluctance to own up to mistakes or apologise for breaches of promises has left some feeling they have been left “hanging in the wind” when asked by constituents or media for their views on the latest government policies. One said MPs fear being left to look like “muppets”, as business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng was when he was sent out to brief against standards commissioner Kathryn Stone just hours before the prime minister U-turned on the issue.
“The deal is that MPs are supposed to pile in behind the leadership, which is a reasonable expectation,” said one senior backbencher. “But when things go wrong, we need some cover. We need ministers to clear the mess up and provide us with lines we can use. That is not happening at the moment.”