Boris Johnson’s reputation among Conservative members has plunged to a record low, it has emerged, as the party enters its annual conference facing accusations of a “chumocracy” at the top of government.
With Tory MPs restless over the government’s performance, which has seen it lose a huge poll lead over Labour since the start of the pandemic, the prime minister has recorded his first ever negative satisfaction rating among a survey of Tory members on the ConservativeHome website. He recorded the second-lowest score of any cabinet member, with only education secretary Gavin Williamson performing worse.
The prime minister will attempt to use the virtual party conference this week to try to relaunch his premiership by looking to the programme he wants to pursue beyond the Covid crisis, which has dominated his time in Downing Street.
It comes as his performance has been tested again during a series of regional television interviews, in which he appeared to forget key facts about his hospital spending programme and struggled to explain how residents across the north of England should regard the local Covid 19 restrictions they face.
Asked how much hospital investment would come to Leeds during an interview with BBC Yorkshire’s Look North, Johnson scrambled for notes on the floor and asked aides for the figure before apologising for not having it to hand.
He also appeared to struggle to explain the rules in different parts of the north west, during another disjointed interview with ITV Granada Reports. Asked whether or not certain activities were allowed, he suggested people did not have to strictly follow local lockdown rules as long as they “show common sense”.
Asked if someone in Wirral could go for a walk in the park with someone from another house, Johnson said it could be all right as long as they used social distancing. However, the interviewer pointed out that social mixing between households in the area was against government advice.
Johnson added: “Provided people show common sense and they look on the local websites – that is the best way to get this virus down.”
Johnson is facing concerns from different wings of his party. While the libertarian wing is increasingly concerned that Covid restrictions remain too severe, figures on the modernising wing are concerned about radical plans to breach international law regarding the European Union, and to confront the BBC – an agenda they attribute to Johnson’s senior adviser, Dominic Cummings.
Jesse Norman, a Treasury minister, warned that Conservatives should be wary of tearing down institutions. “The difficulty with the revolutionary position is that human beings are remarkably bad at making radical decisions that prove to be wise in the long term,” he told the Bright Blue think tank’s magazine. “Conservatism also means acknowledging that institutions are wiser than individuals. You could look at many institutions and call them relics of a bygone era, or you could see them for what they are, the product of innumerable compromises that contain a great deal of knowledge and wisdom.”
Justine Greening, the former education secretary, writes in the Observer today that many voters still regarded the Tories as being “dominated by the voices of privilege and chumocracy, more than those representing the party of effort and reward; that it protects the monied, vested interests that bankroll the party, ahead of the interests of the public; that too often government roles seem handed out based on who knows whom, rather than who knows what”.
However, other senior figures in the party are trying to take a longer-term view. “Looking back at the things we’ve gone through in the last 18 months, some of them feel like 18 years ago,” said one minister. “By the spring, if Covid is looking better, the economy is picking up and the Bond movie is finally out, things could look very different.”
Johnson’s team are keen to return to the themes he backed during his early weeks in power, such as the “levelling up” agenda. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Commons leader, has written to the cabinet to ask for “bold and ambitious bills” ahead of the next Queen’s speech in the spring.
The programme is set to include a criminal justice bill, a controversial planning bill to speed up development and house building, an animal welfare bill and a plan to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act – a move that will again give No 10 control over the timing of the next election.
A No 10 spokesman said: “The prime minister has been clear that we will not be blown off course in our plans to build back better, and that’s just what our next Queen’s speech will do.”