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Analysis: Anger over Boris Johnson's leadership goes beyond 'partygate'

Are we witnessing the end of the political career of British prime minister Boris Johnson? Photo: Leon Neal/PA Wire.
Christopher McKeon

THE Sue Gray report may have provided the catalyst for yesterday evening’s vote of confidence in Boris Johnson, but Conservative grievances with the prime minister stretch back much further.

Those problems began with a different row over standards in public life and Mr Johnson’s handling of the Owen Paterson lobbying scandal.

The PM at first backed Mr Paterson after the House of Commons Standards Committee found him guilty of breaching rules on paid lobbying by MPs, and whipped Conservatives to support an overhaul of the standards system rather than suspend Mr Paterson from the House.

Just 24 hours later, Mr Johnson had U-turned in the face of public anger, but the focus of the press and public was now on standards and a succession of further damaging stories followed that resurrected the accusations of “sleaze” that plagued the last days of John Major’s premiership.

These included the revelations of partygate, described by former Treasury minister Jesse Norman yesterday as demonstrating “a culture of casual law-breaking at 10 Downing Street”.

But there have also been questions from Downing Street standards chief Lord Geidt over the refurbishment of Mr Johnson’s flat at No 10 and, later, the response to the Gray report, along with criticism from the public of Conservative MPs’ second jobs.

Many MPs have referred explicitly to partygate and the prime minister’s own behaviour when calling for a confidence vote, especially following the release of the Sue Gray report.

But, as Mr Norman’s letter yesterday made clear, policy issues have also played a role in bringing some MPs to call for the PM’s resignation.

He picked out specific issues such as proposals to tear up the Northern Ireland Protocol, plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, the privatisation of Channel 4 and the recent ban on “noisy protest” – that might have riled the more liberal “one-nation” wing of the party frustrated by the government’s pursuit of “culture wars”.

But there has also been criticism from hardliners as well, primarily over tax.

Meanwhile, several backbenchers have reportedly been frustrated by an apparent lack of direction, demonstrated by repeated U-turns on policy.

This lack of direction was highlighted by Mr Norman, who said the government “seems to lack a sense of mission”, and has contributed to discontent with the Tory leader from different wings of the party.

Finally, there are the electoral implications of Mr Johnson’s continued leadership.

Labour has maintained a consistent poll lead over the Conservatives since the start of the year while, the Liberal Democrats look increasingly threatening after recent by-elections.

A recent YouGov poll forecasting more than 80 Conservative losses in “battleground” seats – including the PM’s own – may have led some MPs to conclude that the best chance of saving their jobs is to get rid of Mr Johnson.

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