Richard North, 27/09/2020  

Several of today's Sundays have reverted to type, chasing the soap opera of domestic politics, suggesting that the management of the resurgent Covid epidemic is creating serious stresses in Number 10.

To what extent this is court gossip is difficult to assess, but it is interesting to see that, while the while the Sunday Times and the Observer are playing the story big, the Sunday Telegraph has it very much down-page.

If I'm reading this correctly, it seems that Covid has taken over as the main concern of the Johnson administration. Brexit seems to have taken the back seat, while this little local difficulty is sorted out.

According to the Sunday Telegraph, Johnson's immediate problems rest with a backbencher rebellion as a number of MPs are rallying around an amendment tabled by Sir Graham Brady, which would force a vote on future social restrictions.

Johnson, however, appears not to be seeking to kiss and make up. Rather, he is effectively daring the rebels to vote down his entire package of measures this week if the Speaker blocks a vote designed to give MPs a say on new restrictions.

What rests with the Speaker is whether to allow the Brady amendment. Some 60 backbenchers are preparing the back it, if allowed. And if opposition parties also vote against the government, Johnson could face his first parliamentary defeat since the general election.

As it stands, Speaker Lindsay Hoyle is expected to rule the amendment "out of scope", preventing the amendment from being debated. If that happens, there will be calls for Johnson to put forward his own mechanism to allow votes in advance of each future measure, but Johnson is not backing down.

That leaves the rebels with the "nuclear" option of voting against the renewal of the entire Act, something most will not be willing to do. Nevertheless, stomping on Graham Brady could turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory. This is the man who can bring down prime ministers.

Compared with the Telegraph "take", however, the Observer bigs-up the problem, as one might expect. Johnson, it says, is facing "a massive parliamentary revolt", signifying that "confidence in his leadership is collapsing in the Conservative party and across the country".

Piling on the agony, the paper also adds a detail that the Telegraph doesn't have – an Opinium poll which has Labour on 42 percent, three points ahead of the Tories who drop down to 39 percent. Starmer has also pulled well ahead, chosen as "best prime minister" with 36 percent as against Johnson with 32 percent.

Compared with the position at the end of March, the Tories were "powering ahead" on 54 percent, 26 points clear of Labour. Predictably, the Observer rejoices in  this development, chirping about the extent to which faith in Johnson is ebbing away.

This, it says, "is matched by growing admiration for the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, increasingly seen on the Tory backbenchers as more of a unifying figure for the post-Brexit era, and a potential successor to Johnson". Probably, the wielder of the knife never wears the crown, but if this keeps the Observer happy, what the heck.

It is The Sunday Times, though, which really goes over the top, telling us that Johnson, to his enemies, "is a stubborn politician who never changes his mind or apologises for his previous statements".

That's not quite how I'd put it, but this paper tells us that, behind the scenes, the coronavirus has forced Boris Johnson to rethink one of his most cherished beliefs – assuming, of course, he has ever had any beliefs.

That apart, we learn that Johnson, a politician who has cultivated a reputation as a libertarian controversialist, has embraced his role as the man trying to balance the competing demands of saving lives and the economy in what are very choppy seas.

With the headline "Number 10 at breaking point over the coronavirus", and the sub-heading "Boris Johnson is torn between saving lives and rescuing the economy — something's got to give", you can see exactly where the paper wants to take us.

This weekend, it says, there is the looming threat of a second wave of the coronavirus and differences over the government's approach. Then there are tensions in the cabinet over how to save the economy.

However, unlike in spring, when the first wave came, Johnson finds at his back a fractious parliamentary party in which former leaders and senior backbenchers openly plot against him, while his experts Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance have delivered a "highly sobering assessment" of a "sharp increase" in the Covid-19 infection rate.

Johnson, we are led to believe, has been convinced that Whitty and Vallance represent pragmatic opinion in the centre of the range of experts. But he has also approved a plan to continue with the rule of six, and has introduced a 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants. The practical effects of this, we learn, were not modelled by Sage, but it was seen as "a good symbolic thing because it's a low-cost way of sending a clear message that things are different".

A Johnson ally says: "There's a view around that he's been captured by the scientists, but he has been listening to scientific opinion in all its forms. The position he's taken is one that balances the need to drive down infections and keep the economy going".

This ally adds: "The prime minister is the only one who has to calibrate the Covid deaths, the non-Covid deaths and the cost to society, plus the economic costs. It's like a seesaw. You have to constantly balance it. There are multiple plates spinning and he’s the one who has to keep them in the air".

This, apparently, is where the fun starts. Far from pleasing everyone, this "balancing act" has not endeared him to many ministers or MPs. The cabinet was not as balanced as the scientists. Only Hancock, and Gove have backed a tough lockdown now.

Deep in soap opera territory, we are left to enjoy the prospect of Westminster swirling with talk that Johnson is disgruntled, short of money and still not in peak health.

On the back benches, we are told, "MPs are in open revolt about tougher measures and openly questioning whether he will still be prime minister in a year's time". "The theory has been that the 2019 intake owe their jobs to Boris and will be loyal", says one regular in the SW1 bars. "They're not".

So now we have the ultimate political source, the "regular in the SW1 bars" – we can get no higher. For the rest, once we're past the gossip, we are supposed to accept that Johnson's approach is to try to control the virus with the minimum of economic harm. But, we are told, that will inevitably lead to constant shifts to the rules.

A senior government source – who might or might not be a "regular in the SW1 bars" - says: "What we need is behavioural change. We have delivered a jolt to the system. It's like the paddles on the patient. We hope to resuscitate the kind of behaviour we need without taking further measures".

But the best is yet to come. If people continue to "do a Cummings", a national ban on households mixing will follow in three weeks’ time. "The next thing you would look at, if this doesn't work, is the social element", another source – who might or might not be a "regular in the SW1 bars" - says.

All this does, though, is buy time. Another senior Tory suggests that: "Boris's plan is to try to ride it out and survive until spring in the hope that a vaccine or testing bails him out then". Considering what a mess he's made of testing, he's out of luck if the vaccine doesn't work.

Despite that, Johnson is said to be ahead of the curve. The difference between now and March, therefore, is that he can see a school of sharks in the water. One hopes they have big teeth.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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