Boris Johnson’s sudden sober approach to the pandemic is welcome – but will it be enough to dim Rishi Sunak’s shine?

Andrew Grice
·4-min read
Boris Johnson (BBC)
Boris Johnson (BBC)

In some TV interviews, Boris Johnson gives the strong impression he would rather be somewhere else, doesn’t look his questioner in the eye and appears distracted.

Appearing on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show today, the prime minister knew he could not afford such a lacklustre performance, and did not give one. He was focused, robust and showed signs of the “old Boris” his MPs want back, amid muttering among them about whether he will lead the Conservatives into the next general election. He dismissed rumours he has “long covid” as “drivel,” “balderdash and nonsense."

The need for a polished performance was underlined by the latest opinion polls. Ominously, the Sunday Telegraph reported that 37 per cent of Tory voters would support him being replaced by the next election, while a further 28 per cent replied “maybe.” A survey of Tory members by the ConservativeHome website showed that for the first time, Johnson has a negative “satisfaction rating” – the difference between those satisfied and dissatisfied with him. He is on minus 10 points, while Rishi Sunak tops the cabinet league table with plus 82. Grim findings, and remarkable for a leader who only 10 months ago personally delivered his party’s biggest majority since Margaret Thatcher in 1987.

Johnson wanted to talk about his “levelling up” agenda, which he hopes will dominate the Tories’ virtual conference now taking place. That was a lost cause, and the interview was rightly dominated by coronavirus. His chancellor appeared to be in the back of Johnson’s mind, amid tension between them over whether to prioritise lives or livelihoods. Sunak cheered Tory MPs last month by saying the country must learn to live with the virus “without fear.” Today Johnson deliberately moved on to his ground, arguing that people should “behave fearlessly but with common sense.” It won’t entirely stop the rumours; it seems that Sunak talked Johnson out of a tougher approach on 18 September, including the closure of all pubs.

Johnson repeatedly argued for a “balanced approach” – bearing down on the virus while keeping the economy open. He said, rightly, that the public would not support a strategy involving the loss of tens of thousands of lives. He tried to reassure his MPs, many of whom think the restrictions have already gone too far, that as a “freedom-loving Tory” he hated imposing such curbs.

Commendably, he was more candid than usual, acknowledging the public’s “fatigue” about the restrictions and his frustration with NHS test and trace. He was less convincing on whether his “whack a mole” strategy of local lockdowns is working, pleading for more time, which is not much comfort if you have already been locked down for months. The cabinet will likely discuss a switch to a simpler, three-tier system this week, with restrictions based on the local infection rate.

The prime minister had a mixed message about Christmas. We know he would like to relax the rules so that families can have something close to a normal time. Warning of a “very tough winter,” he said “it is going to continue to be bumpy through to Christmas. It may even be bumpy beyond.” But later he said things could be “significantly different” by Christmas, while adding more realistically that they could look “radically different” by the spring.

Defending his handling of the pandemic as “the only way to do it,” Johnson also argued that displaying his customary “buoyancy and elan” – what his MPs call the “Boris bounce” – would be “totally inappropriate” in such an unprecedented crisis. But that won’t halt the sniping from his disgruntled and rebellious MPs. They feel unloved by their PM and insist their complaints are about substance rather than style, believing Sunak rather than Johnson has got “the balance” right.

In some ways, Johnson is lucky that the Tory conference exists only virtually. The real one scheduled to take place in Birmingham would have seen ministers, MPs and activists sharing their doubts about the PM with the journalists also inside the goldfish bowl. But Johnson won’t escape one conference ritual – an inevitable comparison between Sunak’s speech tomorrow and his own address on Tuesday.

It reminds me of Gordon Brown’s coded criticism of Tony Blair’s strategy to Labour’s conference in his Monday speech, and Blair’s riposte the following day. Sunak and Johnson are not at that stage yet. But in politics, colleagues are rivals. With remarkable speed, Sunak has assumed the king over the water role that Johnson once revelled in when he was the darling of the Tory conference.

The PM who as a child wanted to be “world king” is finding out it is much harder when you get to the top, especially when your MPs and normally loyal party activists start to debate your shelf life.

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