Before getting down to business at Sunday morning’s Cabinet meeting, Boris Johnson said he wanted to make a personal statement.
Addressing ministers joining him via video link, he cleared his throat – he still sounds chesty on occasions after his near fatal brush with coronavirus – and launched into a vehement dismissal of the slew of weekend media reports that No 10 had been involved in an angry slanging match with Health Secretary Matt Hancock over the failings on testing and PPE.
‘It’s all nonsense, don’t believe a word of it,’ said the Prime Minister.
Yesterday, it was Boris Johnson’s judgment that was being questioned after the mixed-to-poor reviews of Sunday night’s televised address. The PM is pictured in the Commons yesterday
According to one who was privy to the meeting, the PM had also singled out Mr Hancock for praise at Thursday’s Cabinet meeting.
Turning to him at the start, he said: ‘No Health Secretary has ever had a task like this. It is an Atlas-like burden.’
All well and good, you might think, for the beleaguered Mr Hancock, who has come in for widespread criticism on access to testing, PPE provision and the care homes crisis.
But the fact the PM felt the need twice to speak up for him is the clearest sign yet that the political heat over perceived blunders in the handling of the pandemic is starting to divide the Cabinet, with members now briefing against each other.
Fuelling the situation is the growing resentment felt towards the ‘quad’ – Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Mr Hancock – who along with the PM and his senior aide Dominic Cummings are calling all the shots.
All well and good, you might think, for the beleaguered Mr Hancock, who has come in for widespread criticism on access to testing, PPE provision and the care homes crisis
Matters came to a head this weekend after claims that the ‘roadmap’ to ease lockdown was presented as a fait accompli to the rest of the Cabinet.
One minister has described it as a ‘Potemkin Cabinet’ in which decisions are made before meetings take place. Indeed, the 50-page strategy document had been printed even before they met.
Others say it is a return to the Blair-era ‘sofa’ style of government, a small, cosy group who made the important decisions, usually without senior civil servants present.
Yet, less than six months ago, Boris Johnson was secure at the helm of a handpicked cadre of MPs, loyal to him and his stance on Brexit, after delivering the biggest Tory majority at a general election since 1987 and becoming the most powerful Tory PM since Margaret Thatcher.
Yes, the country faces an unprecedented challenge and seemingly has the highest number of fatalities in Europe, but it is astonishing how quickly Cabinet discipline has started breaking down as the virus blame game begins.
Yesterday, it was Boris Johnson’s judgment that was being questioned after the mixed-to-poor reviews of Sunday night’s televised address.
One minister has described it as a ‘Potemkin Cabinet’ in which decisions are made before meetings take place. Indeed, the 50-page strategy document had been printed even before they met
The Foreign Secretary didn’t do his boss any favours, either, when he sallied forth to face TV and radio interviewers yesterday morning at best unprepared for questions he might easily have anticipated – and at worst seemingly contradicting the line from No 10.
That has done little to reassure those rebellious ministers, and the PM has been left in no doubt as to the strength of feeling about the quad.
At that meeting on Sunday, a succession of ministers, from Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey to Justice Secretary Robert Buckland, complained the first they knew about the new public health slogan ‘Stay Alert’ (to replace the highly successful ‘Stay at Home’ slogan) was when they read about it in that morning’s newspapers.
As for the PM’s address to the nation, it was recorded before the Cabinet meeting, which was to ostensibly sign off on the phased plan for easing lockdown.
One Whitehall source said: ‘The TV address raised more questions than it answered. If there had been a proper Cabinet discussion before it was recorded we might not look like the left hand doesn’t know what the right one is doing.
The Foreign Secretary didn’t do his boss any favours, either, when he sallied forth to face TV and radio interviewers yesterday morning at best unprepared for questions he might easily have anticipated – and at worst seemingly contradicting the line from No 10
‘While Boris is ahead in the polls he gets away with it, but poll leads don’t last for ever. Now Labour are operating as a coherent opposition under Keir Starmer, it is putting more pressure on the Government.’
There is also genuine concern among some ministers about Boris’s health. He looks tired, which is understandable, and has lost weight.
‘He looks very post-viral, rheumy-eyed and down,’ said one observer. There is talk privately that his hand is not as firmly on the tiller and he has been unable to stop the Cabinet dividing into rival camps – the so-called hawks and doves – on how swiftly Britain should emerge from the lockdown.
Once the most hawkish of hawks, Johnson was criticised by the Labour Party for not taking Britain into the lockdown sooner.
But after developing Covid-19, he’s now at one with fellow sufferer Matt Hancock, who is the noisiest advocate around the Cabinet table of a softly-softly approach along with Cummings – who was also laid low by the virus.
‘It’s no coincidence that the people who have had this terrible disease all agree about the cautious approach,’ says the Whitehall source.
‘They fear a second spike in infections will be even more deadly for people’s health and the economy.’
The split centres on how low the reproduction rate of the virus – known as its R number – should be before the lockdown is eased.
Chancellor Sunak, a hawk, believes that if it is sustainably below 1 – where the number of new infections is no longer rising – then restrictions can be lifted.
Chancellor Sunak, a hawk, believes that if it is sustainably below 1 – where the number of new infections is no longer rising – then restrictions can be lifted
Hancock wants the R number close to zero before reopening the economy.
Alok Sharma, the Business Secretary, and Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, have been persuaded of the dove approach in recent days.
But the majority of the Cabinet want to move faster, although some, including Liz Truss, the International Trade Secretary (and hawk), are deeply worried at an increasingly ‘disunited kingdom’, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland going their own way.
One ministerial source said: ‘Boris’s address to the nation must have been the first from Downing Street which was only to the nation of England and not the rest of the United Kingdom. It’s a very worrying trend.’
The tensions, the rifts and the hostile briefings are only likely to get worse as the economic news deteriorates further.
If the polls stay in Boris’s favour, then he can see off his critics.
If they don’t, it won’t be the ‘quad’ taking the flak from ministers, but direct hits on the PM himself.