Boris johnson tried to stabilise his listing premiership on wednesday, as he sought to end public confusion over his coronavirus strategy and contain a rebellion by conservative mps. he needs to save himself, said one senior tory.
The prime ministers failure to properly explain some of his own covid-19 restrictions and the chaotic publication of new virus rules have in recent days fuelled a sense among conservative mps that number 10 is losing control.
Mr johnsons decision to front a downing street press conference on wednesday was an attempt to show he is getting a grip on a second wave of coronavirus, the backdrop to a deteriorating political situation for him at westminster.
He blunted a rebellion by as many as 80 tory mps who objected to a lack of parliamentary oversight of his coronavirus rules by offering them more of a say over future restrictions, but the discontent has not gone away.
The parliamentary party feels bruised we are treated like whipping boys and girls, said one conservative mp.
Graham brady, chair of the 1922 committee of backbench tory mps, has accused mr johnson and his ministers of ruling by decree. historically the 1922 chair is a discreet figure, dispensing candid advice to prime ministers over a brandy in number 10. the fact that sir graham was leading an open revolt is a sign of how bad things have become for mr johnson.
Sir graham is among those tory mps who believe mr johnson is introducing new coronavirus rules both local lockdowns and national restrictions to curb the resurgence of covid-19 without a clear strategy, proper scrutiny, or due regard to their likely economic impact.
Ominously for mr johnson, a number of conservatives now speak of the need to live without fear the phrase adopted last week by chancellor rishi sunak, a flag-bearer for tory mps who want a lighter approach to tackling covid-19.
Mr johnsons apparently scattergun approach to fresh coronavirus restrictions was epitomised on monday when the government published new rules for england covering everything from loud music in pubs to fines for workers who fail to tell their bosses they are off sick.
These rules were not mentioned by mr johnson when he announced a fresh round of nationwide restrictions last week, including a 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants, nor were they debated in parliament.
Instead, the rules surfaced thanks to a sharp-eyed daily mirror reporter. it was difficult to see how ministers thought the public were to be informed about the additional restrictions on their liberty, unless they were inclined to wade through pages of dense government text.
Steve baker, a former minister, calculated that 242 pieces of so-called secondary legislation had been used by the government to introduce virus restrictions.
When you've got a body of law that large, changing that fast, i doubt really anyone understands what that law is, he told sky news. this is not a free environment for a free people.
Mr johnsons inability on tuesday to accurately describe new rules against households mixing in north-east england was splashed across newspaper front pages as evidence of the disarray surrounding his coronavirus strategy. for people living in the region, there was unsurprising confusion.
At hoochie coochie, a funk, soul and jazz bar in the centre of newcastle upon tyne, proprietor warren thomson was unable to tell customers ringing up to cancel bookings whether they could in fact still legally visit his premises.
With the rules now enforceable by the police and backed up by potential four-figure fines, an exasperated mr thomson was still struggling to clarify some aspects so he can put up guidance signs for customers. i started off in the hospitality industry, now im an enforcement agency, he said.
Mr thomson thought mr johnson had completely lost it, but said the government had generally proved incompetent. theyve completely lost the public, he added.
Meanwhile david greenhalgh, conservative leader of bolton council, which has been contending with a big covid-19 outbreak, said the governments handling of the crisis was breeding resentment among so-called red wall voters who switched from labour to the tories at the general election.
Criticising the sheer unfairness of local restrictions, he told the guardian: its become too complex, too complicated. the amount of resentment thats built up now is because of the unfairness. people feel very let down, they feel frustrated. theres a lot of anger.
Some tory mps believe mr johnson could begin to rehabilitate his premiership by ditching his chief adviser dominic cummings, whose ill-fated lockdown trip to county durham in the spring sparked a collapse in public confidence in the governments handling of covid-19.
Cummings and the people around him arent conservatives, said one senior tory mp.
Other mps said mr johnson needed better media advice, citing amazement that he was not briefed on the detail of the restrictions in the north-east in spite of the fact that a minister gillian keegan had failed to answer the same question hours earlier on primetime radio.
He needs better advisers, competent ministers and he needs to communicate better, said a former cabinet minister.
But mr johnson believes he can still speak straight to the heart of the nation and thinks voters are backing him and his strategy. i think people get it, he told mps. i think people want us to defeat this virus, and they want to see us doing it together.