‘He’s used up eight of his nine lives’: Tory rebellion over COVID restrictions points to a leader in deep trouble

Politics

It was but two years back that Boris Johnson swept into No 10 on a Conservative majority not seen since the days of Margaret Thatcher, his foot on the neck of a broken Labour party, his position seemingly unassailable.

So, to mark the anniversary of that triumph with a 100-strong rebellion from unbiddable backbenchers must have been a very bitter blow for the prime minister.

That neither his whips nor the rebels expected the backlash over new COVID restrictions to be so big, points to a party out of control and a leader in deep trouble.

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‘Significant blow to PM’s authority’

But when it comes to how terminal it is for Mr Johnson, Westminster tends to overreach.

The prime minister is either untouchable or toast, when in reality, neither extreme is true.

But for a senior Conservative MP – Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown – to tell me live on Sky News after the COVID votes on Tuesday night that a leadership challenge is “on the cards” next year if the PM doesn’t change his ways, is a big moment.

Adulation has given way to pragmatism. Mr Johnson has to prove to his team that he’s a PM still worth backing in the coming months.

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“He’s used up eight of his nine lives,” is how one former ally put it to me. “He’s got one life left and that means he has to handle the next crisis well.”

Another former cabinet minister puts it another way: if Mr Johnson’s backbenches over time decide he is a liability rather than an asset and is putting their seats at risk, they will eventually move against him.

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Moment MPs vote for COVID passes

They said: “People do still believe in his magic, in how he can appeal to voters, but he has to step up. The prospect of a leadership in this parliament has gone up massively. He has to fix his political operation.”

For this rebellion is about more than just the policy around COVID restrictions, it’s as much about principle and style; recent scandals over parties, the funding arrangements for the PM’s flat and sleaze has cost him dear, his authority draining away from unforced errors which erode not just his own reputation but that of his government and MPs.

Christmas recess in two days’ time cannot come soon enough, the PM lucky he can at least press pause on this snowballing crisis.

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A difficult Prime Ministers Questions on Wednesday followed by an even more difficult by-election on Thursday in Shropshire North will punctuate what has undoubtedly been the worst fortnight of his premiership.

And while Boris Johnson will be desperate for the respite of recess, he remains a PM trapped between a restive party and a fast spreading variant. Neither are under his control.

He can at least use recess to try to put his No 10 operation back in order and his premiership back on track.

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