Travel row, rebellions and a dip in the polls: is Boris Johnson in trouble?

Rishi Sunak ‘flexing his muscles’ as prime minister loses support of Tory members

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak
(Image credit: Leon Neal - WPA Pool /Getty Images)

Boris Johnson is facing revolts on multiple fronts from his own MPs just as his “vaccine bounce” appears to be wearing off.

“Tightening opinion polls have put the Conservative party on edge,” says the i newspaper. The Tories had been enjoying a double-digit lead in most surveys as the UK’s Covid vaccination rates put it among the best in the world.

But this lead has “contracted to an average margin over Labour of just six points”, while public satisfaction with the prime minister and his party has fallen to a nine-month low, says the i.

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Coronavirus passports, planning reforms and Universal Credit are causing divides within the party, just as Chancellor Rishi Sunak – the favourite to succeed the PM – has made what The Guardian calls an “unprecedented intervention” over travel restrictions.

The rebellions

Backbench Tories are pushing for parliament to be recalled before September to debate the “threat” of domestic vaccine passports, reports The Telegraph.

Johnson has said he intends to introduce proof of vaccine status for people entering nightclubs and other venues with large crowds from next month, but at least 43 Conservative MPs have signed a declaration opposing the move. The PM has been warned by one backbencher that he faces an “embarrassing defeat” should he put the “authoritarian” proposal to a Commons vote, says the newspaper.

Another backbench rebellion has been prompted by plans to withdraw the pandemic Universal Credit uplift of £20 a week. Steve Baker, a leading Brexiteer and MP for Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, is the latest Tory urging ministers to abandon the cut as he warned that people, such as those in his own constituency, had been “tipped over the edge” financially by the pandemic, resulting in “intolerable” levels of hunger and poverty.

Meanwhile, controversial planning reforms intended to enable 300,000 homes a year to be built have “sparked a ferocious backlash among Conservatives”, says the Daily Mail. The “sweeping changes” may be watered down after “whips warned that almost 100 Tory MPs could rebel and vote against them”, says the newspaper.

Ambitious Sunak

Against the backdrop of these rebellions, the chancellor has written to the prime minister urging him to ease travel restrictions, reported The Sunday Times yesterday.

Sunak “warned that Britain’s border rules were damaging the economy and tourism in particular, ahead of a crucial meeting of ministers on Thursday, which will determine the travel rules for August”, said the newspaper.

In “a further sign of Sunak flexing his muscles”, the chancellor met Tory strategist Sir Lynton Crosby last week, added The Sunday Times. “The meeting was a ‘catch up’, aides said, but was seen as evidence that the ambitious Sunak is cultivating a key power broker.”

If this news unsettled the prime minister, two polls from Conservative Home will do nothing to alleviate his jitters. One survey of Tory members found that Sunak was the “clear front-runner” to succeed Johnson, while another found the PM’s net satisfaction rating has dropped from +36 points to +3.4 in a month.

The site’s editor, Paul Goodman, notes that the satisfaction survey went out before the recent fall in Covid cases, and suggests Johnson’s “original unwillingess to self-isolate during the ‘pingdemic’, and the handling of opening-up itself” had “knocked a fair bit off his score”.

Yet Sunak, who also attempted to avoid quarantine after coming into contact with Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who tested positive for Covid, had a satisfaction rating of +74.1, second only to International Trade Secretary Liz Truss on +89.

Peak Johnson?

An Ipsos MORI survey for the Evening Standard last month showed that public satisfaction with Johnson and the government had fallen to a nine-month low, with 55% of adults dissatisfied with the administration.

“As other countries have caught up with Britain’s jabs programme Boris Johnson has been less able to exploit the rollout for electoral gain,” says the i, which quotes one Cabinet minister as saying: “It’s like all psychology, what starts out being extraordinary ends up being seen as ordinary.”

The newspaper says that autumn will be seen as a crucial period for the government in rebuilding the country and setting out a refreshed policy agenda, with the next electoral test coming in the form of local elections in May 2022.

Despite the recent slip, the Tories are still ahead in the polls overall, which is unusual for a governing party at this point in parliament. But, in the Financial Times, Robert Shrimsley notes that any dip in popularity will make Johnson “more risk averse” as he becomes “more fearful of his own MPs and more wary of his ambitious chancellor”.

“There is no tribe of Johnsonite loyalists,” says Shrimsley. “His standing with his MPs is shallow and based on assumptions that he is a winner. The authority gained by the vaccine success helped him keep them in line but if they again sense feet of clay he will face more rebellions, not least from southern Tories who fear Johnson is neglecting their voters.”

Wondering whether the UK has reached “Peak Johnson”, Shrimsley concludes that the PM may one day “reflect that he wasted an opportunity to do more of the hard political yards while his own stock was high”.

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