In Depth

Are Boris Johnson’s U-turns testing the patience of his backbenchers?

Rising tide of dissatisfaction among MPs swelled by school mask reversal

Back in December, with Boris Johnson commanding a majority of 80 after a landslide election victory, he found himself the toast of a grateful Conservative Party on the verge of delivering Brexit.

But eight months on, and with a string of high-profile U-turns behind him, the prime minister is coming under fire from his own side.

Tory MPs have accused Johnson of presiding over an “utter shitshow” following another U-turn on face masks in schools, the Daily Mail says, warning that Downing Street needs to “get a grip”. 

Can’t take my eyes off U-turn

The announcement this week that secondary school pupils would have to wear face masks in areas with high levels of coronavirus infection is the latest U-turn performed during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Following the change of policy, Conservative MP Huw Merriman said erratic policy-making had to stop. It was “baffling for many people”, he said, causing them “uncertainty [and] worry”.

Over the past few months, the government has set out several detailed policies only to backtrack days or weeks later.

In May, minister changed tack after first insisting that an NHS bereavement scheme would apply only to doctors and nurses, not other critical staff. Johnson eventually caved in to pressure, extending the scheme to include thousands of other care staff.

The next major about-face came the next day, when the PM announced that the £400 annual fee paid by non-EU migrants to use the NHS would be scrapped for health and care workers, “just a day after defending the policy”, The Independent says.

And in June, MPs who could not attend the House of Commons because they were shielding from Covid-19 were allowed a proxy vote, after the government had previously argued that only MPs who were physically present in parliament should vote.

In the same month, the government announced that children would not get free school meals during the summer holidays. A high-profile campaign by England and Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford persuaded Downing Street to reverse the policy.

Soon afterwards, the government announced that the heavily delayed Covid-19 tracing app would not be rolled out due to accuracy issues. A replacement, built using a different system, is yet to appear.

Having previously described evidence that face coverings reduce transmission of coronavirus as “weak”, in July the government made them compulsory in English shops, supermarkets, takeaways, banks and post offices. 

And earlier this month, anger erupted following the release of A-level grades, many of which had been downgraded by a government-designed algorithm. Days later, after exam regulator Ofqual published and then withdrew its appeals criteria, the government reversed itself again.

None of this has reassured MPs. “Discontented rumblings across the party have been growing louder as the coronavirus crisis has dragged on,” says City AM.

Trouble on the horizon

With the coronavirus pandemic still in full swing, there may be more policy U-turns on the horizon.

Today it was announced that workers on low incomes in parts of England where there are high rates of coronavirus “will be able to claim up to £182 if they have to self-isolate”, the BBC reports.

But pressure is already mounting on the government to expand the program, with Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham claiming the payment “goes nowhere near far enough” and that people need “full pay”.

Johnson has also announced major changes to England’s planning system, which will make it easier to build new homes, but which will strip councils of the ability to block planning permission in areas designated for growth.

“The plans will face a rough ride in parliament,” says the Financial Times, with Tory councillors likely to be the most “vociferous critics of proposals that will remove some of their planning powers”.

The policy could be make-or-break for the PM, writes The Spectator’s James Forsyth who argues that Johnson “Boris the builder mustn’t buckle over planning reform”.

“It needs to demonstrate that it intends to use its majority to enact change,” Forsyth says. “To back down now would send an awful message: that even its most important policies can be dropped.”

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