Is Boris Johnson’s authority ‘evaporating’?

Tory MPs concerned PM ‘lacks strategy’ and presides over a cabinet of ‘nodding dogs’

Boris Johnson
(Image credit: Eddie Keogh/AFP via Getty Images)

Boris Johnson is a politician unlike any other. His rise to No. 10 has been unhindered by a succession of scandals in his personal and professional life, prompting Bloomberg to label him “Britain’s Teflon leader”.

But after three weeks of particularly damaging headlines, Conservative MPs are beginning to wonder whether scratches are finally starting to show on his non-stick surface.

His mishandling of the parliamentary “sleaze” scandal has won him few friends in Westminster, while the government’s new plans for HS2 – which has amounted to a significant scaling back of election promises – have angered northern leaders and “red wall” Tory MPs.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Following a bruising Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) this week, Johnson faced furious Conservative backbenchers at a meeting of the 1922 Committee.

One Tory MP gave a brutal appraisal of the grilling, telling BBC political editor Laura Kuennsberg that Johnson “looked weak and sounded weak”, adding that his “authority is evaporating”.

Losing his grip?

Johnson is a “proven election-winning machine”, but the “question nagging” at Conservative MPs is whether he can “turn things around and reunite his demoralised party” following a succession of scandals, said the Financial Times.

The prime minister has said – behind closed doors – that he “crashed the car” over the Owen Paterson debacle in an “admirably frank” admission. But many are “wondering how the accident happened in the first place”.

Senior party members have pointed to his circle of advisers, deriding cabinet ministers as acting like “nodding dogs”, the paper added. Others said that his No. 10 team is “currently too weak”, arguing that Chief of Staff Dan Rosenfield and Cabinet Secretary Simon Case have “failed to avert recent political pile-ups”.

Tory MPs have also voiced concern that Johnson’s political strategy is becoming increasingly “hard to discern”.

A “particularly bad” PMQs underlined Johnson’s “poor grip” on both the second jobs row “but on other aspects of his own job”, said Isabel Hardman in The Spectator.

The prime minister complained that Keir Starmer had been offered work by the law firm Mishcon de Reya, “in effect suggesting that while the Tories were bad, so were their opponents,” she added. But “it’s hardly inspiring stuff when a politician starts to resort to this kind of deflection”.

And while Johnson’s “bad-tempered” performance “rang alarm bells” with parliamentary colleagues, said Katy Balls in The Guardian, “the clearest indicator of how Johnson’s standing has fallen” was “how few MPs bothered to show up to support him”.

On the Conservative benches behind him, “large patches of green leather were visible” in a “stark illustration” that the party is divided and that “Johnson’s MPs currently feel little loyalty towards their leader”, Balls, The Spectator’s political editor, added.

The divide in the Tory party over the handling of the Paterson scandal is obvious, with his 2019 intake of MPs particularly worried the row plays into the “Tory toff” stereotype, she added. But “no one is seriously talking about replacing him anytime soon”, said Balls.

“MPs are upset with their leader but they are not about to abandon him completely.”

Electorally, the only way Johnson’s administration will come under “serious” threat is if it can be “shown to be failing on its delivery of key pledges to the voters who backed them in 2019”, said Alex Wickham in Politico’s London Playbook.

A scoop in the Health Service Journal revealing that a government watchdog warned Johnson’s promise to build 40 new hospitals by 2030 is “unachievable” could cause him “huge trouble”, Wickham added. “You can bet Starmer will spend 2022 making Tory 2019 manifesto promises vs. reality a key theme in British politics.”

On Conservative Home Bim Afolami, a Conservative MP and adviser to Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, spoke of his concerns. “The danger of this political moment is that the Conservative government may be close to losing a very precious thing – the benefit of the doubt,” he said.

“Memories of the vaccine bounce have long faded,” while taxes “have risen and are due to rise further”.

The government needs to “show we are focused on delivering for the public” or be doomed to go the way of previous long-running Conservative administrations, he added – “a gradual and then sudden decline into defeat”.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

 Sorcha Bradley is a writer at The Week and a regular on “The Week Unwrapped” podcast. She worked at The Week magazine for a year and a half before taking up her current role with the digital team, where she mostly covers UK current affairs and politics. Before joining The Week, Sorcha worked at slow-news start-up Tortoise Media. She has also written for Sky News, The Sunday Times, the London Evening Standard and Grazia magazine, among other publications. She has a master’s in newspaper journalism from City, University of London, where she specialised in political journalism.