“Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me,” Boris Johnson pleaded with business leaders as he lost his place during his keynote speech at the CBI conference on Monday.
The response was an awkward silence. But many in the audience – and those watching the live television images at home – will have been thinking that the time for the Prime Minister to ask for forgiveness has long since passed.
Speeches given by prime ministers to business leaders are normally dry affairs, reported in worthy – if dull – news reports.
But Johnson’s bumbling speech cut through like no other, with Declan Donnelly (of Ant and Dec fame) mocking the PM by pretending to lose his place while presenting that night’s I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here! “Forgive me,” he muttered – the same catchphrase spoken by Susanna Reid on GMTV yesterday morning, while shuffling her papers around.
When politicians are openly ridiculed like this on primetime television, it is time to worry. And plenty of Conservatives are now openly doing just that.
The problems for Johnson started three weeks ago, when a plan to try to overhaul the way MPs’ behaviour is policed was derailed by his attempt to save the career of Owen Paterson.
That led to a rapid about-turn as Labour declined to back the plan, and newly elected Red Wall Tories protested – some wondering why party whips had urged them to vote through changes to save a veteran MP they barely knew.
The Paterson fallout quickly led to rising anger over MPs’ second jobs, the most egregious being the revelation that Sir Geoffrey Cox, the former attorney general, had earned millions of pounds from work outside Parliament.
The wall-to-wall coverage saw the Conservatives’ five per cent poll lead collapse, while Labour narrowly edged ahead; Johnson last week admitted to his own MPs that he had “crashed the car” on a straight road over the Paterson affair.
But the PM’s headaches don’t end there: his current problems are centred around 10 Downing Street, his Cabinet and Parliament.
In No 10, Johnson’s allies point to a lack of a senior adviser after the departures in the past year of Dominic Cummings, his chief adviser, Lee Cain, his director of communications, and Lord Udny-Lister, his chief of staff – partings that have led MPs to fear the wheels have come off the Downing Street machine.
While good at their jobs, the new coterie are not as close to Johnson as their predecessors – and a litany of missteps aren’t doing much to restore confidence in No 10.
Johnson is well aware of the inexperience of some of those working with him, and managed to persuade Ben Gascoigne, his long-standing aide who quit as private secretary in May, to return as a Whitehall enforcer last month.
Gascoigne, whose official title is Deputy Chief of Staff, is being allowed to attend the crucial 8.30am meeting in No 10 before heading out into Whitehall with instructions to “kick people’s backsides,” according to one insider.
Still, the gaps are all too clear. Allies identify a need for a political figure close to the PM who can road test potential bear traps, such as the Owen Paterson affair; one senior Tory MP says: “He needs a few more adults in the room.”
A former aide adds that Johnson desperately needs “more challenges. Not like Dominic Cummings hurling a rock through a window but him being told across the table that there are alternatives and there are consequences.”
Dan Rosenfield, the Number 10 chief of staff whose background is as a civil servant in the Treasury, and Simon Case, the youngest ever cabinet secretary, are often unfairly the targets of frequent criticism from disgruntled Tory MPs.
They ask whether Johnson, in his desperation to keep up momentum in Government, has been doing too much. His speech to the CBI felt unprepared and rushed – and that was before he lost his place in his notes.
One ex-aide said: “People were looking for a bit more than that and he has got panned for it. Somebody should have said ‘there is a time for jokes and a time to deliver some serious messages’.
“He was not saying ‘I love you, business’. That should have been there, and he should have talked about the benefits of Brexit and the need for regulatory reform. That was what they wanted to hear.”
The CBI speech was one of three on Monday – he also spoke to the Centre for Policy Studies, and another dinner in the evening after a regional visit. “I would not have agreed to three speeches in one day – that is daft,” the ex-aide said. More daft still, perhaps, was repeating the same quip about Peppa Pig World – which had already garnered headlines the first time – on all three occasions, too.
The problem is finding someone of sufficient calibre who Johnson can trust. Such figures are thin on the ground for a PM who always cut a solitary figure on the back benches.
I understand that the Prime Minister has unsuccessfully asked Lord Udny-Lister – who as Eddie Lister was one of his top aides in City Hall – if he will return to No 10. Others suggest bringing back his former trusted press adviser Will Walden, now a strategic communications adviser and part of the old guard who worked closely with Johnson during his time as London Mayor. The situation is hardly helped in the Cabinet, where senior ministers look on, apparently unable to help a PM who tends to treat the weekly meetings as a rubber-stamping exercise for his policies.
Johnson also appears tired – perhaps unsurprising given he is the father of a toddler, and a second child is due within weeks. Two Cabinet members have told me that Johnson needs more help in managing his workload and prioritising. One said: “He is drowning.”
Perhaps it is time for Dominic Raab, who holds the position of Deputy Prime Minister alongside his ‘day jobs’ of being Lord Chancellor and Justice secretary, to help out the PM?
Johnson needs all the help he can get: disaffected Conservatives are becoming increasingly restless after rebellions over sewage discharges into rivers, and most recently on Monday, over reforms to social care. The intake of MPs in 2019 – among his more vocal critics – are also said to be frustrated by last week’s northern rail network plans, which they fear may further alienate the Red Wall Tories accrued two years ago. Many of them (and their constituents) backed Johnson on account of his ability to win – but that’s fading further from view. Senior Tories say Johnson’s two Parliamentary Private Secretaries, Andrew Griffith and Sarah Dines, both elected to Parliament in 2019, are too inexperienced: “He needs PPSs who are senior who can say how it is,” one senior Tory MP says.
The truth is that Johnson – who bestrides the Conservative party and his Government like a medieval monarch – still does have the power to put things right. The question is whether he can bring himself to ask for help.
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( Information from telegraph.co.uk was used in this report. To Read More, click here )