Boris Johnson’s levelling up speech in Coventry on Thursday was billed as the moment the prime minister would set out the substance behind the central idea of his premiership.
In the event, he announced £50m for community football pitches and 15 more local high street upgrades, and mused about the potential benefits of “mayors” for counties, asking the public to email him if they had a better name. There was much characteristic enthusiasm but little policy meat.
Some southern MPs were reassured by his message that he doesn’t want to “level down” affluent areas. But for other jittery Conservatives the lack of substance was a worrying sign of broader political drift at the heart of government.
“I was very, very surprised at how poor Johnson’s speech was,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. “I would have thought that was an opportunity to set out the government’s stall and go back to the manifesto that won them the election in 2019.
“The fact it was so poor suggests they really haven’t made much progress in thinking about how they are going to deliver those promises.”
With just a few days to go until the House of Commons breaks up for the long summer recess, many of the prime minister’s backbench troops are ending the political term frustrated and restless.
Whether on Covid restrictions or overseas aid, he has seen shifting groups of rebels repeatedly take bites out of what should be a comfortable majority of 80. And he has irked other backbenchers by finding himself on the wrong side of the culture war over footballers facing down racism.
Johnson’s initial equivocation over whether it was acceptable to boo the England team for taking the knee at the start of matches – a stance also taken by the home secretary, Priti Patel – left Downing Street stranded on the wrong side of public opinion.
Johnson did eventually fall in behind Gareth Southgate’s team and their right to make the anti-racist gesture – but he appeared angry and rattled at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday when Keir Starmer attacked him for failing to back the players from the start.
One backbencher said colleagues had been complaining furiously on MPs’ WhatsApp groups about the botched handling of the issue, which had left them having to defend themselves against allegations of racism.
Will Tanner, director of the Conservative thinktank Onward, told the Guardian’s Politics Weekly podcast it was a mistake for the government to engage in a “war on woke”.
This approach, closely identified with Johnson’s aide Munira Mirza and her husband and fellow Tory adviser, Dougie Smith, has seen the Tories wade into issues such as the removal of statues over slave links in the hope of tempting Starmer’s Labour party on to treacherous ground.
“I think the government would do well to reflect on just how popular that politics is and how small the constituency is for the anti-woke kind of partisanship, which I’ve always seen as a kind of quite big distraction from the fundamentals that voters really care about,” Tanner said.
Johnson’s determination to cut Britain’s aid budget has been another source of contention in his party – though polls suggest it is popular with the public. A recent YouGov survey showed 54% of people were in favour of the cut to 0.5% of national income, with 28% against.
But former prime minister Theresa May, who voted against a three-line whip for the first time in 25 years, told Johnson he was breaking, “a promise to the poorest people in the world”.
In the event, 24 Conservatives voted against the government, giving Johnson a comfortable majority – but only after he and the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, had hit the phones to MPs to win them over.
Downing Street saw the government’s victory as a show of strength rather than a sign of weakness, with government sources suggesting a large majority makes rebels feel they have a free pass.
A senior government source insisted No 10 was “acutely aware of the concerns of the parliamentary party” but had no intention of changing direction on the basis of this or any other rebellion.
But the rebels included a string of former cabinet ministers – Andrew Mitchell, May, Damian Green, Jeremy Hunt – some of whom have also raised concerns about other aspects of government policy, including Johnson’s radical planning reforms.
Alongside the rows over specific policy issues, there is a gnawing sense among some backbenchers – particularly in potentially vulnerable southern seats – that voters are becoming queasy about Johnson’s brand of Conservatism.
One senior MP who canvassed in the recent byelections said: “We picked up a bit of it in Chesham and Amersham and a bit in Batley and Spen but it wasn’t by itself: it was the attitude to aid, it was the chumocracy stuff.”
“You bundle it all together and you’ve got a party of Alan B’Stards,” he added, referring to Rik Mayall’s 1980s portrayal of an immoral, money-grubbing Tory MP.
Another senior Tory cited Barack Obama’s campaign manager David Axelrod, who warned against loading too many “bricks on the wagon” – meaning potentially negative points for voters. “How many bricks can you hold until the wheels come off?” they asked, warning that the Conservatives risk looking “mean-spirited”.
Downing Street remains relaxed, believing they have more to gain in Labour-held seats in northern England than they are likely to lose in the south. But Bale warns: “People in those red wall seats have lent votes to the Conservatives: the relationship with the Conservatives is still pretty transactional.
“I’m not sure a bypass here or a town centre spruce-up there is going to do it. People have all sorts of other hopes and fears the government promised to address in 2019: about health, about education, about law and order.” Sunak’s spending review in the autumn will make the government’s priorities in these areas much clearer.
On Covid, meanwhile, a different group of renegade backbenchers, including Steve Baker and Mark Harper, have harried the government towards pressing ahead with the 19 July reopening.
Their scepticism effectively killed off the idea of mandatory Covid certificates for entering crowded venues, too, because the government believed it could not get the idea past the Commons without Labour support – though ministers are now urging businesses to implement the scheme anyway.
As the parliamentary term nears its end, Johnson and his chancellor are scrambling to put the finishing touches to a social care package they hope could address claims the government lacks a purpose. But some of their colleagues believe they could still be blown off course – yet again – by the pandemic.
MPs have sensed a narrowing in the polls and the ebbing away of the vaccine bounce. “Public memories are extremely short,” said a senior moderate MP. “I think if we have to reimpose masks then we can just about survive. But if we have to ever close businesses again then the plummet in support we saw last Christmas will be nothing. It’ll be like that on steroids. And colleagues would revolt. The PM is finished. We’re all finished.”