Behind the scenes

Boris Johnson’s ‘shambles’: the four main problems facing PM

Tory leader under pressure to tackle crises including soaring cost of living

Boris Johnson ended 2021 battling crises on multiple fronts, from the the “partygate” scandal to a full-scale Conservative revolt over the introduction of “Plan B” Covid-19 restrictions.

And as 2022 gets under way, the prime minister is facing fresh accusations of “corruption” over the funding of his Downing Street flat refurbishment, as latest polling shows that Labour have maintained their lead over his party. Here are the top four on Johnson’s growing list of problems.

1

Cost of living crisis

Senior Tories have warned Johnson that he faces being “punished at the polls” unless he acts to tackle the UK’s cost of living crisis, according to the Daily Mail.

Three Tory select committee chairs told the paper that MPs fear support for their party could collapse amid a “devastating squeeze” on living standards fuelled by soaring energy bills, a £12bn tax rise to fund NHS and social care, and a predicted 6% jump in inflation by spring.

As the clock ticks down until April, when the energy price cap is due to be lifted as tax hikes kick in, a senior Conservative said: “People are pissed off about parties in No. 10 now but it will pass. What won’t pass is the anger people will feel when, far from being levelled up, they find their standard of living has been levelled down.” 

Robert Halfon, chair of the Commons Education Committee, described the cost of living as the “number one issue facing the prime minister”, adding: “People voted for Boris because they believed their financial security and prosperity would be better – he has got to make it happen.”

Defence Committee chair Tobias Ellwood said the cost of living was becoming a “totemic issue on how we are handling the economy”, while Julian Knight, chair of the Culture Committee, called for the PM to “wake up and listen to his party” in order to “set a clear path out of” the crisis.

Johnson is expected to meet with Chancellor Rishi Sunak to discuss tackling energy prices. But Whitehall sources told The Telegraph that despite what the paper described as the looming “annus horribilis”, the pair were “nowhere near” to agreeing a solution. 

Sunak has so far rejected calls from his party to scrap the 1.25% increase in National Insurance contributions, the Financial Times reported. 

2

Unfriendly press

Johnson and his government have been the target of a series of unfriendly briefings in the press in recent weeks, and there was more bad news for the PM in this weekend’s papers. 

In an exclusive interview with The Mail on Sunday, former Brexit minister David Frost called on his ex-boss to rebuild the economy by pursuing “free markets, free debate and low taxes”.

Johnson’s former ally spoke out after a scathing leader in The Sun urged the government to “axe or delay the National Insurance tax increase, scrap VAT on energy and announce urgent relief for the crippling price rises we now face”.

Piers Morgan got the boot in too, in his first column after returning to the paper. The former showbiz editor lambasted Johnson as “a shambles”, and urged him to “start getting more things done, or admit that being prime minister is simply too much for you and let someone else do it – before the party takes that decision for you”.

Tory politicians have also put pen to paper to criticise their leader. In an article for The Times, Ben Houchen, the Conservative mayor of the traditionally “red wall” constituency of Tees Valley, warned Johnson against forgetting the promises of “investment, jobs, and progress” made to northern voters in the run-up to the 2019 general election. 

“The government’s pledges to tackle the problems faced by left-behind towns and to ensure that people can see opportunities in their own towns may have been forgotten by some of those gripped by the daily 24-hour news cycle,” said Houchen, a protegee of the PM. “But those who backed Boris in 2019 have not forgotten.”

 Houchen concluded: “It’s time for the prime minister to focus, remember what got him elected two years ago and what the British people need to see to return him as prime minister at the next election.”

3

Polling red alert

In another indicator that Johnson may be “cruising for a red wall bruising”, latest polling suggests that the PM’s “dithering on the rising cost of living and soaring energy bills” is “hitting him in the ballots”, said The Sun.

A YouGov survey of 1,600 voters in 18 red wall seats in the north of England found that 79% thought the government “does not understand their economic woes”, the paper reported.  A total of 83% backed a VAT cut on energy bills, according to the poll, conducted for the Energy and Utilities Alliance.

A separate YouGov poll of of 1,744 adults last week for The Times found that 67% were worried about the rising cost of living.  In what the paper argued was “perhaps the most concerning finding for Downing Street”, 33% said they expected their fuel bills “to increase by more than I can afford in the year ahead”.

And in another blow to the PM, a YouGov survey for Sky News of 1,005 Tory party members in the week up to 6 January found that nearly half believed Sunak would be a better leader than Johnson. A third said Johnson should stand down now as party leader. 

4

Labour momentum

While the Tories are faltering in the face of various scandals, Keir Starmer and his team “have found their rhythm with a series of well-timed interventions on energy off the back of” the Labour leader’s New Year keynote speech, said Politico London Playbook’s Alex Wickham.

Labour has already unveiled proposals for tackling increasing energy bills, including scrapping VAT on bills and introducing a windfall tax on North Sea oil producers.

The party claims the measures would save the average household around £200 a year, rising to £600 for the most vulnerable families.

“It is the kind of costed policy that positions Labour as a government in waiting rather than a glorified pressure group,” wrote The Sunday Times’ chief political commentator Tim Shipman. 

The opposition’s growing momentum is causing concern among senior Tory backbenchers, the Daily Mail reported.

“What's worrying is that Labour have got it – they have been raising this issue week in, week out for months, while we are nowhere,” a senior Conservative told the paper.

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