Richard North, 20/06/2020  

It's rather quaint that the "progressive" Guardian should resort to such a old-fashioned phrase, headlining that the Tories fear Johnson has lost his vim.

In my mum's day, losing one's Vim meant a rather more physical loss, and an immediate loss of cleaning power. Around the time of my adolescence, though, scouring powders rather fell out of fashion. The advent of modern kitchen and bathroom surfaces rendered the abrasive too damaging. It was replaced first by cream cleaners and, latterly, by complex spray-cleaning formulations.

Nevertheless, the wonderfully archaic advert (crafted for Lever Brothers) – which probably pre-dates the Second World War – offers advice which could apply to Johnson in his present predicament, assuming he could find his own personal pack.

And yet, the Guardian thesis – a straight-faced version of its John Crace articles – holds out that there are "rising concerns" in the belly of the beast, the Tory Party itself, as some senior Tories are openly wondering whether Johnson will stay the course until 2024.

According to one former minister (not always the best bellwether), there are doubts about Boris’s health, his competence and his judgement. This anonymous person continues: "He might not be the statesman that some had hoped he could become. Throw Cummings into the mix and you start getting MPs openly talking about the fact that he will have to go before the next general election".

One might venture the view that anyone who hoped that Johnson could become a "statesman" needs taking aside and given a gentle course of counselling – and an injection of brain cells.

That aside, there is talk of "restive Tory MPs" – even those who are normally sympathetic – who are warning that their leader could be forced into more embarrassing U-turns in the weeks and months ahead if he fails to listen to his own party.

Needless to say, this is precisely the sort of thing one might expect of the Guardian. It is no great secret that the paper is not in the front tier of Johnson fans, and it has been known to offer the occasional less than adulatory piece (pace John Crace).

Somewhere in the middle might be The Times which currently has on offer an article about Andrew Mitchell, a former Tory chief whip, under the headline: "An odour of disrespect is wafting across the road from No 10".

According to Mitchell, one word sums up the current mood of Tory backbenchers. That word is "sulphurous". Again there is that reference to U-turns, with the mention of free school meals and the contact-tracing app. The contract-tracing debacle seems to have seriously wounded the beast.

Also, there is some irritation that the Department for International Development was scrapped, without consultation with the party. And, overall, there are concerns about the government’s handling of the pandemic, as well there might.

Not least, the Guardian - that infernal newspaper again – is running a front-page story on how ministers effectively fiddled the Covid-19 deaths. When they peaked on 8 April at a declared level of 881, the actual death toll was 1,445 people, some 64 percent higher than ministers were prepared to admit.

I recall at the time thinking how convenient it was that, just as the daily figure looked like topping the thousand-mark – at which point, one senses, the media would have gone ballistic – the figures miraculously dipped. In fact, the death toll topped 1,000 for 22 consecutive days.

Over the period of the epidemic, if there has been one thing that has been lost of even greater consequence than Johnson's Vim, it is trust – trust in government. It must be a very rare (or gullible) bird that believes any official pronouncements these days.

Of more immediate danger to the Tories, though, are the Conservative grandees – the men in grey suits. They say that MPs are rapidly losing patience with No 10. Here, Mitchell pitches in, saying: "There is a strong sense that Downing Street is a land apart from the parliamentary party".

The former chief whip adds: "There already seems to be a bunker mentality. They don’t reach out, they don’t talk and, if I may use a military metaphor, they are on send rather than receive".

The Guardian rehearses the same theme. Many Johnson critics, it says, feel their voices are barely heard, let alone heeded, inside Downing Street. Johnson’s No 10 team of staunch loyalists, many veterans of the Vote Leave campaign, pay scrupulous attention to focus groups and opinion polls, but MPs say they are rarely consulted, and in many cases, neither are ministers.

Much of this is obviously the Cummings effect, this supposed political genius who, if left unchecked, seems capable of destroying the Tory Party from within. Some, of course, would aver that that is his intention. Personally, I don't think it is. If that's what Cummings actually intended, the Tory Party by now would be stronger and more unified than it ever has been in its history.

It is perhaps no surprise that the Guardian also mentions Andrew Mitchell. Not only was he chief whip, The Times neglects to say that he was also a former development secretary. Although he backed Johnson for the leadership (something many Tory MPs are beginning to regret), he recalls that the prime minister had "sat in my office and looked me in the eye and told me DfID would be safe".

That's the thing about politics. You can stab endless numbers in the back on your way up the greasy pole, but the wounds are rarely fatal. The one certainty which will come back to haunt is that they will be waiting for you on the way down. And in Westminster, more so than anywhere else in country, blood in the water attracts the predators – with uncommon speed.

With two papers down the same path, however, there is another one to come, the Telegraph which increasingly looks to be dipping a toe in the water to test for sharks.

This time it is the readers who are allowed to do wield the knife – a collective which writes under the headline, "This government is failing on every single front". Three items are cited, already common fare: "the easing of lockdown restrictions, Brexit news and a dramatic U-turn in Westminster".

Even sarcasm is deployed (I think it's sarcasm), as one reader avers: "He will shine the bright light of intellectual reasoning, tinged with pragmatism, to free up the logjam that has so far perplexed those lacking his towering intellect". Another reader, more prosaically states: "It’s simply impossible to have any faith in the Tories". He is not wrong.

In normal times, this would be highly damaging to the Tories. But these are not normal times. On the Labour side, Pete takes the view that Starmer is every bit as unelectable as Corbyn.

And it's not only just the man. "He himself can project an image of Blairite mundanity but on all sides he’s surrounded by circus freaks. His deputy is a moron and the talent pool with which to form a shadow cabinet is more of a puddle. He needs Caroline Flints but he's got Dawn Butlers".

Less graphically, we have Labour's own report which talks of a dysfunctional "toxic culture" which led to its last defeat.

But even if the party had everything going for it, in order to win at the next election (scheduled for 2024), it has to win the 124 additional seats to form a majority government. That is a 60 percent increase in its MPs - something that has never been achieved by any party.

For the time being, therefore, Labour is no great threat to Johnson. Then, as Thatcher found to her cost – the most deadly enemies to a Tory leader are other Tories. When Johnson stands up in Parliament, he will be uncomfortably aware that, as is so often the case in politics, those who wield the knives are behind him.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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