Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
The drip, drip of accusations against the Prime Minister is enough to make even the staunchest Conservative loyalist feel a little bit grubby. His latest line that “nobody told me” the Number 10 garden party was against the rules is bordering on the absurd, not least because no one should have to remind the author of the contents of his own rule book.
Of course, the independent inquiry may conclude that events technically fell within the Covid regulations. That the party did constitute a “work event”. But whether the gathering was lawful will do little to repair his reputation. Weeks of revelations and emotional testimonies from members of the public have his approval ratings running below that of his predecessor Theresa May’s – and at her very lowest.
But, then again, opinion polls are notoriously fickle. With the inquiry allowing the Prime Minister some space to reconfigure, it may yet be possible for him to remind his disillusioned backbenchers and the public that he is a winner.
There’s also the possibility that members of the media have overplayed their hand in all this. It’s no secret that there are lobby journalists who harbour personal animosities towards Boris Johnson. It does seem rather convenient for those who have always found him unpalatable to latch onto recent events and push so relentlessly for him to resign.
It’s not too farfetched to believe that the public could run out of interest, fed up with the feeding frenzy around the Prime Minister, particularly when there are so many pressing issues to be dealing with, not least the cost of living – made worse by the Government’s endless interventions in the energy market and its seemingly incessant desire to tax and ban.
The hypocrisy from the likes of Beth Rigby sticks in the craw when she herself was found to have attended a rule-breaking party. And while many are happy to amplify Dominic Cumming’s accusations that Johnson lied to parliament, perhaps Cummings isn’t necessarily the touchstone we apply to judge activities in the spring of 2020?
Of course, none of this forgives the Prime Minister’s alleged behaviour – and that of those working at Number 10. But I can’t be alone in my concern that our democracy should not be decided by what can appear in some lights as a campaign of aggrieved advisers and enemies in the media.
However, if the Prime Minister manages to survive partygate, it’s clear he needs to change tack. The opposition may scoff that Operation Red Meat is “more like a wafer-thin slice of ham” – but that doesn’t change the fact the policies Johnson is now getting behind are popular.
Strong rhetoric on the BBC licence fee and on migrant crossings will be welcomed by many Tory voters – and, crucially, it looks like an acknowledgement that he’s aware his administration has so far failed to live up to the expectations of those who put him in power.
But this will not be enough. The disillusionment felt among backbenchers and Tory voters goes far beyond allegations of sleaze or misconduct – or indeed the scope of Operation Red Meat.
Conservative voters didn’t vote for the Government’s interventionist approach in the economy and people’s lives, or the failure to prioritise energy security and affordability over arbitrary net zero targets.
Nor did they think a Conservative government would be so reluctant to pursue a pro-growth agenda, instead pummelling them and their businesses with higher taxes, while finding new ways to add to the regulatory burden. In essence, the Government is getting it wrong on the big stuff.
Johnson made the right judgement on Omicron, and his strategy is beginning to bear fruit. We appear to be set to lead the world out of the pandemic and back to normality – for this he deserves credit, but he must capitalise on it.
Instead of faux apologies in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister should admit to the nation that the rules imposed on this country were always wrong. That what happened at No 10 illustrates just how disproportionate the Covid regulations always were. At the very least, this must mean no more lockdowns, no more Covid restrictions, and the immediate repealing of the Coronavirus act.
Then, if he uses this moment as an opportunity to take head and reassess his priorities, the Prime Minister may have a chance to win back lost support. But if he is to get his disgruntled backbenchers and, crucially, the country back on side, Operation Red Meat isn’t going to be enough to save Big Dog.