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By Baroness Smith of Llanfaes
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Has Boris Johnson Really Damaged His Party With No.10’s Shambolic Handing Of The Paterson Saga?

4 min read

When Boris Johnson travelled to Glasgow on Sunday to host the COP26 climate change summit, he probably didn't expect that by Friday, No.10 would be reeling from one of its biggest crises yet.

Yet that is where he finds himself, with senior Conservative MP Owen Paterson resigning in disgrace, front pages awash with allegations of sleaze, and Tory backbenchers seething with rage over a spectacularly-botched attempt to re-write parliamentary standards rules. 

“Yes, let’s take all the shit and then U-turn again,” one particularly furious junior Tory complained to PoliticsHome.  “It’s fucking ridiculous. Not angry in the slightest."

But as the inquest into how Downing Street got itself into such a mess begins — with most criticism directed at the Prime Minister, Chief Whip Mark Spencer, and Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg — Johnson faces serious questions over just how much damage has been done to public perception of the government.

YouGov polling for The Times, conducted as the Paterson saga was unfolding, found that the Tory lead over Labour fell from 5% to 1%.

One former senior Downing Street official, bemused by No.10’s approach to the Paterson affair, noted to PoliticsHome that this saga is the latest in a long line of recent cases where Tories have been told to publicly defend toxic decisions, only for the government to U-turn later. 

But another senior government source argued that while the U-turn was highly embarrassing, it was "the right thing to do" and that the speed with which they backed down would prevent the saga becoming a major story with the public.

“It was doubling down on Barnard Castle that meant the story went on for much longer,” they said, suggesting the Paterson affair would not be on the same level as Dominic Cummings' infamous trip to Durham at the height of the coronavirus lockdown in terms of public awareness and fury.

Tussles with England footballer Marcus Rashford over free school meals, which the government repeatedly dragged its heels on, and repeatedly gave in to, have also put No.10 on the wrong side of public opinion on numerous occasions over the last year. Snap YouGov polling of 3,565 people on Thursday found that 28% were not aware of the Paterson story — the highest lack of awareness recorded by YouGov for any story it has polled in the last three years. Another 28% said they had been following the story fairly or very closely.

Opinium pollster Chris Curtis said he was sceptical that the Paterson affair would have a lasting impact on the Conservative party brand.

"Part of the reason I’m not convinced that the corruption stories will have an impact is because people aren’t convinced that Labour would be much better," he told PoliticsHome. "In the post-expenses era, the biggest response you get from voters is that they are all as bad as each other."

Curtis did say there was still a possible risk for Johnson that a "consistent drip" of corruption stories could slowly erode his reputation, as was the case for the Conservatives under John Major in the 1990s.

Labour nonetheless plans to capitalise on the scandal, using attack ads on social media, targeted to constituencies represented by Conservative MPs who voted for the Paterson amendment. 

One senior Labour figure believed this felt like "a moment" that could do major damage to the Prime Minister, who until now has generally managed to weather the storm of several previous controversies.

But while Johnson may have yet again got away with it with his public image intact for now, the senior government figure predicted that the damage done to Downing Street's relationship with Tory backbenchers as a result of the Paterson saga would be long-lasting.

With several possible storms on the horizon next year, including a cost of living crisis that will impact households across the country, the Prime Minister is under pressure to get a grip of his operation.

"Some of our MPs won’t forgive Number 10 very easily for this," the senior government source told PoliticsHome.

"It was a dangerous – and unnecessary – abuse of personal and party loyalty.”

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