'Don’t bake in a tent': Boris Johnson's painful week as a punchline

Rocked by rebellious Tories, a resurgent Labour and crises from Covid to Brexit, the PM is fighting to keep control of the narrative

“We are now approaching phase 46,” waffled Matt Lucas in his best impression of an Etonian drawl, sporting a messy blond wig and a No 10-style podium.

“If you must bake in a tent, bake in a tent – but, please, don’t bake in a tent!”

This year’s The Great British Bake Off – a comforting haven of buttercream and marzipan in a tumultuous year – opened on Tuesday with a pointed parody of Boris Johnson’s indecision and mixed messaging.

Johnson has always used humour as a political tool, to disarm critics and charm the crowd.

But the skit cast him less as the joker, more as a joke. The idea that the prime minister is not up to the job appears to have gone mainstream.

Keir Starmer
In the week of his party conference, Sir Keir Starmer went for Boris Johnson in a manner not seen before. Photograph: Labour party

This was another week that saw Johnson beset by challenges on all sides. Less than a year after delivering them a thumping majority, he is facing several simultaneous rebellions from his increasingly despairing MPs.

The most significant is over the coronavirus. Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, the voices of scientific authority throughout the crisis, gave a doom-laden briefing on Monday, warning of 200 deaths a day by November if the virus runs unchecked.

While Johnson strove for a Churchillian note in his broadcast to the nation the next day, the measures he announced were relatively modest – a 10pm closing time and more widespread mask-wearing – reflecting deep concerns in cabinet about the economic impact of restrictions.

As the package of curbs was drawn up Tory whips consulted MPs about which measures they would be likely to support, with some privately saying their message was “this far and no further”.

The message from Sage scientists who went public with their concerns on Wednesday, by contrast, was that the government’s actions were too little, too late. Six months on from the clarity of the “stay at home” message, it appeared hard to sustain the idea that policy is being led by the science.

The scale of discontent in the Tory party is extraordinary for a government with a thumping majority, so early in its term, and in the teeth of a national crisis.

Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee of backbench MPs, has won the support of 46 MPs, most of them Tory colleagues, for his amendment aimed at forcing the government to consult parliament more regularly on its handling of coronavirus.

Like many of the parliamentary battles that punctuated Theresa May’s ill-fated premiership, the details are arcane, and the practical impact likely to be minimal – but the symbolic effect is significant.

The rebels stretch across the Conservative party, from Damian Green on its One Nation wing to Steve Baker the Brexit-backing “Spartan”, and they are numerous enough to inflict defeat on their own government.

All are signalling their concern about the immense powers that have accrued to Downing Street during the pandemic – and the way that Johnson, Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings have used them.

Meanwhile, not all Conservative rebels appear to have been placated by the government’s concessions on the controversial internal market bill, whose critics included May and which is back in the House of Commons next Tuesday.

Yet others are incensed at what they see as the anti-democratic nature of the government’s sweeping planning reforms.

Johnson’s “friends” briefed the Times last week that he was not enjoying the job of prime minister, beset by money worries without the prop of his £275,000 columnist’s salary and struggling to afford a nanny for baby Wilfred.

He was nowhere to be seen in the House of Commons on Thursday as Rishi Sunak announced his winter economic plan – as carefully branded as everything the media-savvy chancellor does.

Sunak ended on a rousing note, saying the public could not continue to “live in fear” and “lives can no longer be put on hold”.

It was a message that played well among the libertarians on the Tory benches, and seemed to put the ambitious chancellor at odds with cabinet colleagues such as the health secretary, Matt Hancock.

Sunak topped the latest poll of cabinet members’ popularity among Conservative members, carried out by grassroots Tory website ConservativeHome. Johnson is now languishing in 17th.

Unable to rely on some of the MPs he might have regarded as friends, Johnson is also facing newly aggressive attacks from his traditional political enemies too.

In the week of his party conference, Sir Keir Starmer went for him in a manner not seen before.

He has moved over the past six months from staunch support for the government’s handling of the pandemic to increasingly pointed criticism of its failings, in particular the shortcomings of test and trace.

His online conference speech, broadcast from Doncaster before racing down to London to respond to Johnson’s latest Covid update, was heavy on patriotism and values – and put Johnson on notice that Labour would treat another national lockdown as “a sign of government failure, not an act of God”.

Deborah Mattinson of political consultancy BritainThinks, whose book Beyond the Red Wall charts the struggle Labour faces to win back many of the seats it lost to the Tories last December, said Starmer had done a good job with his speech but would ultimately have to flesh out its themes with policy.

“He’s got time on his side, but he’s going to have to use that time,” she said. “He talked about patriotism, he talked a bit about himself; but there’s only a certain amount of time you can talk about values, before it just sounds like talk.”

Starmer’s determination to stamp his mark on his party – and draw a line under the indiscipline of the Jeremy Corbyn years – was underlined on Wednesday night when he sacked three leftwing junior frontbenchers for voting against a bill on which they had been told to abstain.

Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak’s messaging on coronavirus has played well among the libertarians on the Tory benches. Photograph: John Sibley/AFP/Getty Images

Corbyn himself was among the rebels on the overseas operations bill, which the government claims defends services personnel from vexatious prosecutions.

Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell praised the three sacked Labour rebels, saying they had struck a blow for human rights.

The row underlined continuing tensions with the well-organised Corbynite wing of the party, likely to be exacerbated by the imminent publication of the Equality and Human Rights Commission report into Labour’s handling of antisemitism complaints.

In normal times, Starmer might seem to be facing a sea of troubles. But compared to Johnson?

With Covid ripping through the country once again, the prime minister will have to decide in the coming days how much it is willing to compromise to secure a Brexit deal before time runs out.

Even with a deal, the UK faces the risk of significant economic disruption, in the midst of a deep recession and a public health crisis.

And for a prime minister who has become a laughing stock, it looks a very long road to the next general election in 2024.


Heather Stewart Political editor

The GuardianTramp

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