Two weeks ago it was difficult to find a single Labour MP who genuinely thought their party was in with a chance of winning the next election. The mood was one of quiet resignation at the prospect of a fifth consecutive defeat. The media had also largely written off Keir Starmer.
A fortnight of Tory sleaze stories later, with Boris Johnson having been at the centre of many of them, it all looks very different.
“Everything we said, prior to the Owen Paterson fiasco, appeared to be dying in a giant void,” says the shadow cabinet member Charlie Falconer.
“Now the goal for Labour is standing open and unguarded. Suddenly it seems like everybody in the media is after stories about how terrible this government is.”
A golden rule of spin doctors, often attributed to Alastair Campbell (though he denies being the originator), is that if one particularly bad story is still plastered over the front pages nine days after it first broke, then the person at the centre of the storm will be in terminal trouble.
Saturday was the 10th day since the Paterson fiasco, in which Johnson tried to save his friend’s career, despite the latter’s “egregious” breaches of Commons rules.
And the sleaze stories were still coming from left and right, thick and fast.
The Guardian front page headline was “PM’s holiday villa linked to Goldsmith tax evasion case”, while the Daily Mail had a poll that was such bad news for the Conservatives that the paper splashed it across the front. “After a week of sleaze Labour race ahead of Tories by SIX points”, the Mail said. Embarrassingly for Johnson, this was all on the concluding weekend of the Cop26 climate summit – at which he had hoped to pose as a global saviour.
Today, on it goes, with the Observer’s extraordinary revelations about Jennifer Arcuri’s diary of her affair with Johnson when he was London mayor. His ex-lover’s apparently contemporaneous notes show he overruled advice from his own officials in order to further her business interests, and their relationship.
A poll for this newspaper by Opinium today also gives Labour a lead – for the first time since January – and shows Johnson’s personal ratings plumbing new depths.
Now it is the mood inside the Tory party that is depressed, and very sour.
Much of the 2019 intake – including those who won former Labour seats in the north and Midlands because voters liked Johnson’s upbeat political celebrity brand much more than that of Jeremy Corbyn – are furious at being ordered to vote to save Paterson for no reason, only then to be blamed for doing so by their constituents.
Frustration at the government’s antics extends right across the Conservative parliamentary party. A Tory MP who won his seat in 2010 said: “Our intake is also pretty pissed off with him because he recently promoted the 2019 intake to jobs ahead of us because they were from the ‘red wall’ seats, when we had been waiting for years. And now this. We are not a happy united team.”
Asked on Saturday how bad it was for the prime minister – and if Johnson might be on the way out – a former cabinet minister put it this way: “It is bad. It is certainly the worst crisis he has faced. But it is not unrecoverable.”
What Johnson needed to do, he said, was put time into rebuilding personal relations with his MPs, something he was not very good at.
Inevitably, with the Tories imploding, there is early talk of rivals manoeuvring for Johnson’s job.
Last week Rishi Sunak distanced himself deliberately from the Paterson mess, saying the party had to do better, though Sunak’s own backing among the Tory grassroots has dropped off since his big-state, high-tax budget.
From the right, supporters of the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, are said to be out in the field, canvassing away. “They are not very subtle,” says one senior Tory, who had seen some lobbying first-hand.
Other names seen as potentially interested and possibly in the frame if things get even worse for Johnson are Jeremy Hunt and the ex-chief whip Mark Harper.
Labour meanwhile is finding its voice, with its deputy leader, Angela Rayner, and chair of the standards committee, Chris Bryant, leading the anti-sleaze charge. If Starmer can win the trust of the electorate his MPs know things could really begin to look up. “Keir now needs to take the ball and run with it,” said one frontbencher.
For Johnson there is no end to the trouble in sight. The Arcuri revelations are explosive. The parliamentary standards commissioner, Kathryn Stone, is still considering an inquiry into the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat. And on Wednesday, Johnson will appear before the Commons liaison committee to answer questions from senior MPs on sleaze and trust in politics, in what promises to be a highly uncomfortable session in front of TV cameras.
Soon the prime minister will have to act to limit second jobs for MPs, which are feeding a daily production line for sleaze stories. But doing so will bring more political problems for the man who himself earned £1.6m as a backbencher from outside work. “He can’t win with his MPs,” said a former minister. “Whatever he does to limit second jobs he will anger huge numbers of us [who have them].”
In the space of less than a fortnight, Boris Johnson has gone from being viewed as winner both at Westminster and in the country, to being seen as something of a political liability by his own MPs.
Another former minister described him as “a publicity phenomenon, which is how he got the 80-seat majority”. Now that people had begun to see through the act, he suggested, that could be that.
“He’s squandering that,” the former minister added. “He looks dodgy. It’s like having a drift in the ceiling and you think, oh, I can live with that for a bit. And the whole fucking ceiling comes down and you think, I wish I’d dealt with that.
“Voters don’t seem to care, then suddenly, it all catches up with you. The troubles with the economy are going to mount up. Levelling up is a slogan and not a policy. Global Britain is a slogan and not a policy. He just looks shallow.”
Another influential Tory was equally doom laden. “Boris has forgotten what being a Conservative means. It started with ‘parking tanks on Labour lawns’, as a bit of a PR exercise – which was clever, strategic stuff. But it’s gone to his head, he’s bought into his own PR, and he’s now a leader that’s lost his way and forgotten the sound Conservative principles that got him elected as the party’s leader in the first place.
“That, combined with his seeming inability to put a strong team of advisers around him, or to empower ministers to go out and deliver for him as they all want to, and you’ve got a toxic mix of havoc and shambles in No 10 that will drive this country into the ground if MPs don’t start doing something about it.”