Weaker-than-ever Johnson yields to empowered ministers

PM resorts to sneering at Keir Starmer while appeasing backbenchers with curb abolition

The experts may be sceptical about Boris Johnson’s plan to abolish all remaining coronavirus restrictions on Thursday and his own chief scientific adviser admitted that it will drive up infections. But it delighted the only audience that matters to the prime minister, the Conservative backbenchers who control his destiny.

It was for them that the package was crafted, part of a suite of sweeteners, climbdowns and confected culture wars to persuade them not to trigger a confidence vote in his leadership. Former chief whip Mark Harper, one of the prime minister's top tormenters on the backbenches, accepted his tribute with benign condescension.

"I'll take the prime minister's statement, if I may, as his application to join the Covid Recovery Group. He's very welcome indeed – I only wish it had been sooner," he said.

1922 Committee

Johnson took it all in good part, as well he might in view of the rumours around Westminster that the number of letters sent to the 1922 Committee calling for a confidence vote was moving dangerously close to the required 54. He cheered up his MPs further by sneering at Labour leader Keir Starmer's warning that the removal of support payments for people who self-isolate meant that people with coronavirus will find it harder to protect others by staying at home voluntarily.

“This is a leader of the opposition who, as I say, has shown an absolutely ferocious grip of the wrong end of the stick,” he said.

The backbenchers cheered but the prime minister's own lack of grip was exposed on Monday morning when he had to send ministers away from Downing Street less than 10 minutes before the cabinet was due to meet. The meeting had to be postponed while chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak and health secretary Sajid Javid argued about how ongoing pandemic surveillance should be funded.

Anti-obesity drive

Sunak and Javid, both potential successors to Johnson, worked it out between them within a few hours with the chancellor perceived as coming out on top. But the fact that their standoff could delay cabinet and overshadow the prime minister’s announcement demonstrates how cabinet government has returned.

As his ministers become more powerful, Johnson appears ever weaker as he cannot proceed with any policy that offends a significant number of his own MPs. The government is preparing to ditch plans to ban the import of foie gras and fur, along with the prime minister’s anti-obesity drive.

The European Commission wants talks on the Northern Ireland protocol to enter a quieter phase ahead of next May's Assembly elections. But Johnson's need to appease his backbenchers at any cost means that triggering article 16 may be more likely now than it has been for months.