Coronavirus: Don't underestimate deep discontent among Conservatives running out of faith in Boris Johnson

·3-min read

National lockdown number two. It was a policy that two weeks ago, the prime minister not only rejected on the floor of the House of Commons but lambasted Sir Keir Starmer for supporting.

So to come to the House Commons on Monday to ask parliament to back a four-week lockdown was always going to be deeply uncomfortable for Boris Johnson and the U-turn has deeply angered many of his MPs.

They are angry not just on the substance of the U-turn - many deeply opposed to further restrictions - but the way in which the prime minister and his team handled the politics.

Less than two weeks ago, Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) had asked MPs to share clips on social media showing the prime minister attacking Sir Keir, the Labour leader, for calling for a short national lockdown.

CCHQ pumped out a clip of the prime minister declaring that the idea of a "circuit breaker" lockdown was "wrong for this country", while his own "commonsensical local and regional approach" was the right thing to do.

MPs who loyally championed that message could be forgiven for feeling rather aggrieved now.

At least the prime minister appeared in the Commons on Monday to have learnt something from this politically difficult U-turn, as he refused to rule anything in or out as he addressed MPs.

What he was clear about was the impending national restrictions would expire on 2 December and MPs would have a vote on what comes next.

What Mr Johnson wouldn't promise was an end to those restrictions.

He "intends" to return to a tiered system - but it will depend on the "latest data and trends".

And, as the pattern of the virus changes, the prime minister is moving the goalposts too - his game plan changing amid concerns around public compliance, a faltering Test and Trace system and worsening COVID-19 data.

While a few weeks ago Mr Johnson promised us the hope of a normal Christmas, on Monday he spoke only of beating the virus by the spring.

For a prime minister that trades in optimism, sticking to gritty realism is not his comfortable spot.

But for MPs like Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, it's a better position to be in than the knots the party has tied itself in in recent weeks.

He told Sky News: "The prime minister is giving people hope that this circuit breaker lockdown is only going to last four weeks.

"But we also can't guarantee that we'll be in the right place in a month's time, so again - like ruling out a national lockdown - I don't think we can rule anything out and we'll have to keep all options open."

As for the Commons vote on Wednesday for MPs to authorise the new national restrictions, it will pass after Labour confirmed that it will back the lockdown.

That, in turn, has rather taken in the wind out of the Tory rebellions which once might have had teeth but will now be symbolic.

Sir Charles Walker, vice-chair of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, told Sky News he thinks in the end that the rebellion might not pass 20 people.

But do not underestimate the deep discontent in the party that is fast running out of faith in their prime minister and his Number 10 operation.

Mr Johnson's glimmer of hope on Monday was the prospect of millions of rapid tests to lift the country out of lockdowns, as he dangled the possibility of city-wide testing as part of efforts to catch cases and break chains of transmission.

Such a breakthrough would be a game-changer for the country and for Mr Johnson's premiership too.