The Rundown: Tory Rebels Give Wounded Boris Johnson Space To Reset
Former government anti-corruption chief, John Penrose, who dramatically resigned over partygate this week, and director of the Onward think tank Will Tanner, join PoliticsHome's Alain Tolhurst and Eleanor Langford to assess the aftermath of Boris Johnson's wounding confidence vote and what Downing Street is doing to win back the trust of rebel Tory MPs.
The Prime Minister won Monday’s ballot with a comfortable majority of 63, but with 148 of his own MPs voting against him, there are suggestions this could be the beginning of the end for the man who won the Conservatives an 80-seat landslide in 2019.
But Penrose, who quit his role saying it was “pretty clear” Johnson had broken the ministerial code after being fined for attending a gathering in Number 10 in breach of coronavirus laws, said the PM "needs space” to try to turn things round and show “what the new the new Boris and the new regime is going to look like”.
“Goodness knows we all want him to succeed because actually the government's programme, the ‘Levelling Up’ agenda, remains popular and most of us find on the doorsteps that actually the ideas in the manifesto are still moving minds and still moving spirits and still enthusing people,” the former minister said.
Tanner, whose think tank has been heavily involved in helping define the ‘Levelling Up’ agenda, said “the challenge that government has is actually [not one] of messaging or politics, but delivery”.
The former deputy director of Downing Street policy added: “It's actually getting on with the job making the changes and making people feel like changes are happening in their place.
“And if you look at Teesside, what [Johnson] was doing there, you can start to see that happening, and you can start to see the electoral dividends.
“But that needs to start happening everywhere if the Conservatives are to stand a chance at the next election.”
Penrose agreed, adding: “Here we are, halfway through the parliament and because of the pandemic, it actually feels like we're only just being able to begin it now.
"So it's really difficult to move the dial fast enough between now and the general election, not because of anybody's fault, it’s because of Covid, but that that just makes it harder to deliver.”
After the PM’s victory the mood among many of those who voted against him is that he has bought himself time to try and deliver more and get on with governing, though there is scepticism he will be able to switch gears having been more focused on campaigning up until now.
“I think I think everybody wants to see the proof,” Penrose said of the government’s plan for a raft of new policies.
“So I think people want to give them the time to show you can do it. I think everybody wants to be persuaded and wants to see it happen.
“I think only time will tell, but if he can do it then the world is [Johnson’s] oyster. Then we could make real progress.”
But Tanner pointed out that for most governments the time to do your most radical policies are at the beginning of an electoral term “when your political capital is highest, when you've got the most time to do it”.
“And the pandemic slightly curtailed the the government's ability to do that,” he added.
“And we are entering a period, two years until another general election, where the government is actually going to have to backload its policies, and it may well have to be more radical than it had previously anticipated in order to start demonstrating real progress on the issues that matter to voters.”
He said with the “headwinds” of Covid-19, cost of living, rising inflation and low growth, that “increases the premium on radicalism, while at the same time making it more difficult to be radical”.
After Monday’s bruising vote the Prime Minister travelled to Blackpool to deliver a speech outlining a raft of new housing proposals, while he and Sunak are also due to give a joint speech later this month on the government’s plan for economic reform.
But there have also been calls to look at some immediate tax cuts from the Treasury to help individuals and businesses get through the current crisis, such as VAT or National Insurance.
"This is where there are two warring bits of the Tory soul in conflict with each other - because every Tory worth their salt with enough red blood in their veins loves a tax cut, and so we should,” Penrose explained.
"But we're also the party of sound money, and we've got some very important fiscal rules - and for understandable and good reasons the national debt has gone through the roof during the pandemic, but it’s not sustainable long-term.
"So Rishi Sunak, and Boris, have got to bring the public finances back under control. That means you can't carry on splurging money everywhere. You can't carry on borrowing.”
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe