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Tories Unimpressed With Johnson's "Red Meat" Week As Atmosphere In Parliament Remains "Febrile"

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to Finchley Memorial Hospital in north London. Tuesday January 18, 2022.

5 min read

Tories have poured scorn on Downing Street’s so-called “red meat” week of populist policy announcements to distract from the party scandal and put Boris Johnson back on track.

Sources with sight of the No 10 news grid have said announcements from a handful of departments might have cut through, but the list was hardly “fireworks” and “nothing is off the charts”.

One frustrated senior Tory backbencher said: “I’m not convinced this is going to work. It’s stuff that we already know about that’s just been rushed forwards.

“The atmosphere among MPs is still a bit febrile.”

Among the raft of populist policies due for release this week has been culture secretary Nadine Dorries’ announcement that the BBC licence fee would be frozen at £159 for the next two years, which will mean cuts to the service as its budget shrinks.

She stopped short of abolishing the licence fee model altogether, instead saying the current system would have to be reviewed when the Royal Charter ends in 2027.

A Conservative source said the BBC announcement was not in the news grid sent out to staff on Friday and had clearly been put in over the weekend as part of plans to bolster Johnson’s popularity among backbenchers and the the public.

The Prime Minister has suffered weeks of bad headlines over revelations of parties within Downing Street that allegedly broke Covid rules. He then admitted attending a ‘bring your own booze’ party in May 2020 in the Downing Street party and apologised, however a handful of Tory MPs have said publicly that he should resign.

Senior civil servant Sue Gray is currently investigating the allegations of parties.

Dorries, who is a Johnson loyalist, was criticised by Labour’s shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell for conveniently “throwing up a distraction” for the Prime Minister amidst the row about alleged Covid-rule breaking parties. She denied this, saying she was required to make the announcement as soon as possible. A DCMS source said her team were always planning on briefing it this week, and news grids can swiftly change.

On Monday it was also announced that the Home Secretary Priti Patel has brought in the armed forces to take command of deterring migrant boat crossings in the English Channel. This announcement was originally due to be released later in January.

Also due this week on the news grid is information on Help to Grow, which is being led by the Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. This is for small and medium sized businesses to make use of a digital and management advice scheme to try and boost productivity post-pandemic.

Medals for soldiers involved in Operation Pitting was also listed for this week, and then swiftly removed by the Ministry of Defence on Monday night, as a source said it was still a ‘work in progress’.

However by Tuesday, the MoD decided they would do a small announcement on Wednesday after all after news of the medals appeared in the press.

Other Tory MPs are sceptical that shoving in popular policy announcements this week would be enough to turn around colleagues calling for the Prime Minister to resign.

One said: “If they bothered so much about them previously why only talk about it now.”

Another Red Wall Tory said: “I think the stuff that's in the press like the licence fee and small boats all sounds good but to be honest there's no reason they couldn't or shouldn't be doing those things anyway... and the licence fee announcement didn't really go as far as the pre-leaking suggested anyway.

“You also risk losing credit for things if it’s just seen as a cover up. The big question really is can he recover the trust…"

Instead, backbenchers are turning their minds to the possibility of a confidence vote. In some quarters there are concerns that letters are going in to the 1922 Committee too quickly. One senior backbencher said the "worst-case scenario" was a leadership contest being won by Johnson prior to the May local elections, which they expected to go badly for the party. They felt the party's best chance of getting rid of him as leader would be if a leadership contest took place after the result. 

On the chances of Johnson being removed as leader now, another added: "I don't see any mechanism for him to go... not going to happen."

Justice Secretary Dominic Raab said in his media round this morning said it was important the Gray inquiry concludes and that most people want the government to "focus on their priorities". He said it wasn't raised much on the doorsteps over the weekend. 

The Prime Minister's official spokesperson said on Monday: "None of these issues are things that we have not been talking about, or seeking to address, for some time. We have continually kept our approach to small boats under review and the Culture Secretary and Prime Minister have talked about the need for BBC reform many times. As you'd expect we will continue to deliver on those priority policies."

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