After months of policy blunders and with the economy deep in recession, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson needed a new enforcer to help him rescue a leadership in trouble. So he called the future king.
The person Johnson wanted to hire to run the government machine, Simon Case, was employed by Queen Elizabeth’s grandson. Prince William agreed to let his aide go, and Case will take up his post as Cabinet Secretary on Sept. 9. He already has a daunting inbox.
Johnson and his new adviser face a huge task to assert control over a government sliding in the polls and a country in crisis. The ruling Conservative Party is demoralized, as is the army of officials that Case will lead. Indeed, the bigger fear among some of Johnson’s members of Parliament is that the appointment shows how the premier and his team have lost their grip on politics and whether their boss can actually reverse the damage.
The coronavirus pandemic is raging around the world and threatening a winter resurgence in the U.K. The British economy is in its deepest recession on record and ministers are braced for a catastrophic rise in unemployment. With four months left for negotiations with the European Union, the U.K. is still far away from striking a post-Brexit deal with its biggest trading partner.
Even inside the government there are doubts that the 41-year-old Case, who has never run a ministry before, is up to the job. His remit is to make sure Johnson and his powerful top adviser, Dominic Cummings, can execute their vision for revitalizing the country.
But a succession of embarrassing U-turns and errors over the summer — on exam grading, virus tracking and face masks, among other things — has left Tory MPs dismayed at what they see as incompetence inside Johnson’s Downing Street operation.
When they returned to Westminster this week, many Tories were in a dark mood. “Overall, there’s not really a sense of grip and direction, which has been very disappointing,” one MP said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It needs more than funny jokes to get over it in the next few months; we really need stronger leadership.”
In private conversations, Conservatives shared their concerns about the failings at the top of their party. Many were dismayed at the “shambolic” way the government had handled the grading of school exams, which caused a public outcry and was eventually reversed. Some Tories think Education Secretary Gavin Williamson should have been fired, but instead a civil servant paid the price.
Even loyal members of the government accept that the exam fiasco was a massive blunder. “The party really needs to get its act sorted,” one MP said. “The problems arise from No. 10 shooting from the hip — they need to revise their systems for checking policies but I doubt they will, they’re too arrogant.”
A spokesperson for Johnson’s office said he and his team remain focused on helping the nation recover from the virus and putting in place sensible preparations to prevent a second peak overwhelming the health service. They pointed to programs to help young people and protect jobs while working hard on a trade deal with the EU.
Any changes in public health policy were based on scientific and medical advice as the COVID-19 crisis unfolds, the person said by e-mail. Johnson told his cabinet colleagues that in the past few months “we’ve been sailing into the teeth of a gale” and that “sometimes it is necessary to tack here and there in response to the facts.”
His administration has reversed its decisions on wearing face coverings in shops and schools, on its contact-tracing program to contain the spread of the virus, and on allowing members of Parliament to vote by proxy. Ministers made another U-turn on Wednesday, agreeing to keep lockdown measures in place in parts of northwest England after protests from local politicians concerned about a resurgence in infections.
The opposition Labour Party, led by former lawyer Keir Starmer since April, has capitalized. The latest polls show the Conservatives’ lead is now at its slenderest since before Johnson became prime minister in July 2019. While an election isn’t due until 2024, British politics has shown that can change quickly. The turmoil over Brexit led to two votes in under three years.
“Lots and lots of things have gone wrong,” Johnson’s former cabinet colleague David Davis told Times Radio on Wednesday. The mood among rank-and-file Tory MPs is “grumbly,” he said.
In an effort to win back the trust of his colleagues, Johnson teamed up with Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, the most popular member of the cabinet, to meet dozens of Conservative MPs face to face in Parliament on Wednesday.
When he arrived in the wood-paneled committee room, the prime minister was greeted warmly with the traditional cheering and banging on desks from his MPs.
Johnson and Sunak made a special point of trying to reassure a group of MPs who were elected for the first time in December when their leader seemed unassailable and delivered the biggest Tory victory since Margaret Thatcher in 1987 by grabbing districts held for years by Labour.
But rumors of higher taxes to cover the hit to public finances from the pandemic had soured the atmosphere, according to accounts from some of those who attended. Sunak attempted to allay his colleagues concerns by promising there wouldn’t be a “horror show” of increases with no end in sight. Yet the careful wording clearly left the chancellor with room to maneuver in a budget due later this year.
“It wasn’t a great meeting,” said one of those who showed up to hear Johnson. “Boris didn’t take many questions. We ended up feeling a bit neglected.”
Those in the room described Johnson as full of energy and offering jokes to cheer up colleagues who weren’t happy. The premier admitted there had been major communications blunders over the summer, notably over the government’s public messaging on easing the lockdown.
Yet Johnson was also clear that there will be even more difficult times ahead for MPs. Sunak appealed for trust in him and the prime minister. For one normally loyal Tory, the risk is that newly elected MPs from the former Labour seats in poorer regions lose faith in Johnson.
Some with small majorities are already feeling anxious and if Johnson can’t keep them on side, the concern is they will rebel on key policies when votes are held in Parliament. At that point, the person said, voters may start to wonder why they gave the Tory government a majority at all.
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