Is Boris Johnson at risk after series of self-inflicted mistakes? - Ian Swanson

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross had to be asked three times before he finally said he still had confidence in Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. Others may take less time to come to a different view.

Tuesday, 23rd November 2021, 4:55 am

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Mr Ross said in his weekend TV interview that he believed the Owen Paterson affair had been “an extremely poorly handled episode”. Indeed the prime minister himself has said as much, though he could not quite bring himself to apologise for it.

And the scandal of the former Cabinet Minister Owen Paterson approaching ministers and officials 14 times on behalf of two companies which paid him at least £500,000 and Boris Johnson’s botched attempt to get him off the hook by rewriting the rules was followed by revelations about another Tory MP. Former attorney general Geoffrey Cox, earned hundreds of thousands of pounds working as a lawyer in the Caribbean during lockdown and, of course, there is Mr Ross’s own failure to register some of his outside earnings from his role as a football linesman.

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Owen Paterson was found to have committed an "egregious" breach of standards rules banning paid advocacy.

Coming on top of frequent stories of ministers’ friends and neighbours winning lucrative supply contracts during the pandemic and the questions over the makeover of the Downing Street flat with £840-a-roll wallpaper, these examples of MPs lining their own pockets rather than concentrating on representing their constituents raised the spectre of “Tory sleaze” which helped bring down John Major’s government in the 1990s.

It even led Boris Johnson to feel the need to assert at a press conference during the COP26 summit that "the UK is not remotely a corrupt country".

The prime minister annoyed his own MPs by forcing them to vote to save Owen Paterson and then annoyed them even more by performing a complete U-turn less than 24 hours later.

And polls suggest the sleaze issue has seen a drop in Tory support and a new all-time low in Boris Johson’s personal approval ratings.

But the prime minister has also taken two further steps to alienate support among key groups.

Despite his oft-repeated promises to “level up” with big investment for the north of England, he decided to scrap the eastern leg of the HS2 high-speed rail project, which was due to link Birmingham with Leeds via the East Midlands and Sheffield, while also abandoning a planned new rail route from Manchester to Leeds.

The moves make a mockery of the government’s “Northern Powerhouse” pledges and will undermine support in the “red wall” seats which the Tories took from Labour at the last election.

The same voters are also likely to be hit by his other decision, to change the rules on the proposed cap on social care costs in England in a way that will mean poorer pensioners paying tens of thousands of pounds more.

The next general election does not need to be held until 2024 – though many believe 2023 is a more likely date – and the current fall in support could be dismissed as predictable mid-term unpopularity.

But Tory MPs chose Boris Johnson to lead them because they saw him as a winner – and he did indeed secure an 80-strong majority for the party at the 2019 election.

But as soon as he is no longer judged to have the necessary electoral appeal his future will be in real danger.

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