Tory MPs were ordered to put on a show of support for Boris Johnson yesterday, as Labour tried to exploit divisions in the Government’s ranks.
Conservative whips pressured backbench MPs to pack the Commons chamber for Prime Minister’s Questions and cheer on the PM as Sir Keir Starmer twisted the knife over a string of U-turns and mishaps.
‘The whips got everyone in today and that did make a difference,’ one senior MP said. ‘We all know the situation is not good, but no one needs to hear it from Labour.’
Rishi Sunak also put on a pointed show of unity, nodding along as the PM defended his record.
The Chancellor’s appearance alongside Mr Johnson followed revelations in the Daily Mail yesterday that some senior figures in Government blame the Treasury for a toxic briefing against the PM earlier this week.
Tory MPs were ordered to put on a show of support for Boris Johnson yesterday, as Labour tried to exploit divisions in the Government’s ranks
A ‘senior Downing Street source’ told the BBC there was ‘a lot of concern inside the building about the PM’ following a botched speech to the CBI on Monday in which Mr Johnson lost his place for more than 20 seconds.
The briefing has led to a Whitehall hunt for the so-called ‘Chatty Pig’ responsible.
Several sources pointed the finger at Mr Sunak’s adviser Liam Booth-Smith, head of the joint No 10/Treasury economic unit.
The claim was strongly denied by the Treasury. A friend of Mr Booth-Smith said it was ‘not his style’ to give damaging briefings.
Many in government believe the real source of the briefing is based in No 10, which has also been hit by infighting.
A ‘senior Downing Street source’ told the BBC there was ‘a lot of concern inside the building about the PM’ following a botched speech to the CBI on Monday in which Mr Johnson lost his place for more than 20 seconds
But the claim has sparked renewed tensions between the Chancellor and Mr Johnson, which have been simmering for weeks.
The PM’s press secretary sought to play down the row yesterday, telling reporters the two men were ‘working together well’.
She added: ‘The PM and Chancellor, and the entire government, is focused on getting on and delivering on people’s priorities.’
Deputy PM Dominic Raab was also sent out to defend his boss, saying Mr Johnson ‘is on great form’.
‘The Prime Minister is an ebullient, bouncy, optimistic, Tiggerish character and he livens up his speeches in a way that few politicians past and present have done, but actually there is a steeliness to him as a Prime Minister and indeed his team, and we work as a team,’ he said.
But Tory unease about Mr Johnson’s Downing Street operation was heightened yesterday by a poll suggesting the PM’s approval rating has fallen to a record low.
The Savanta ComRes survey put Mr Johnson’s net approval rating at minus 14. It also gave Labour a narrow two-point lead.
However, Mr Johnson was still rated as ‘best PM’ by 39 per cent – well ahead of Sir Keir on 30 per cent.
Senior Tories dismissed reports that up to 14 MPs had submitted letters of no confidence in the PM to backbench shop steward Sir Graham Brady. A total of 54 letters is needed to trigger a leadership contest.
Rishi Sunak also put on a pointed show of unity, nodding along as the PM defended his record
But one senior MP told the Mail: ‘Talk about letters is rubbish. There might be one or two but people are not at that stage. But if we get to the middle of next year and things are still as chaotic, then he could be in trouble.
‘If he doesn’t get a grip then there will be a challenge at some point. The Red Wall MPs are livid, because they would lose their seats as things stand. The Cabinet are unhappy at the sense of drift and the constant U-turns. It is bad.’
Another MP said: ‘This does feel different from the usual chaos.
‘There are three possibilities: either the PM recognises where this is all heading and acts on the need to regroup, reconnect and reappoint an improved No 10 operation; or nothing changes and we slide towards the third possibility, where the parliamentary party gets restless and realises Boris was a great campaigner – but not the leader to take us forward.’
The warnings came as Sir Keir tried to exploit the crisis. The Labour leader taunted the PM over the backlash he has faced since his bungled attempt to block the suspension of former minister Owen Paterson for lobbying
The warnings came as Sir Keir tried to exploit the crisis. The Labour leader taunted the PM over the backlash he has faced since his bungled attempt to block the suspension of former minister Owen Paterson for lobbying.
‘The Prime Minister’s routine is falling flat,’ he said. ‘His Chancellor is worried that people are getting wise, his backbenchers say it’s embarrassing… and senior people in Downing Street tell the BBC “it’s just not working”.’ With an air of mock concern, he added: ‘Is everything OK, Prime Minister?’
Mr Johnson responded: ‘I’ll tell you what’s not working, it’s that line of attack.’
Ian Blackford, the SNP leader in the Commons, also tried to make capital out of the issue, saying: ‘While the Prime Minister spends his time hunting for chatty pigs and staving off a leadership challenge from the Treasury, people in the real world are suffering a Tory cost-of-living crisis.’
Mr Johnson accused him of ‘talking about party political issues when all that the people of Scotland want to hear is what on earth the Scottish national government are doing’.