Boris Johnson’s plight is leaving government in a state of near-paralysis, with key decisions delayed while No 10 focuses on defending the prime minister amid the Downing Street parties scandal, sources say.
“It’s not as easy to get policy through if it has to involve No 10 at the moment. I’m aware the civil servants feel it – feel the slowdown,” said one frustrated aide in a Whitehall department. “You just need to have things to carry on doing.”
Michael Gove’s leveling-up white paper was expected before Christmas but has been repeatedly delayed – though sources in his department insist that it is as much to do with the Omicron Covid surge as “partygate”.
One MP who has been given a preview of the policy paper said they were underwhelmed and expressed concern that the government’s internal turmoil means strategic direction has been lacking.
Despite inflation hitting a 30-year high, and with energy prices set to jump sharply in April, the government is also yet to present a plan to alleviate the cost of living crisis.
The Labor leader, Keir Starmer, said to Boris Johnson on Wednesday: “What’s utterly damning, despite the huff and puff, is that this [the parties scandal] is all happening when petroleum prices, the weekly shop, and energy bills are going through the roof.”
He said of government ministers, many of whom have spent recent half rounds explaining away the allegations of rule-breaking parties: “Instead of getting on with their jobs, they’re wheeled out to save his.”
Marking two years since Brexit, Johnson told his cabinet on Tuesday that “we must be bold to unleash growth and innovation, and show the British people, businesses and investors that things are changing for the better”.
Yet civil servants point to the relatively empty parliamentary timetable, with little heavyweight legislation under discussion, as evidence of the lack of direction from the center of government. The House of Commons adjourned before 5pm on Wednesday.
Tim Durrant, associate director of Whitehall thinktank the Institute for Government, said of the partygate row: “It just sucks up everyone’s attention, that’s the problem … Whether or not they’re directly involved, ministers are always being asked: ‘Do you support the prime minister?’ So they’re having to defend him. They’re not able to get on with other things.”
He pointed out that every hour spent by Johnson wooing backbenchers is time he cannot spend being briefed about the crisis in Ukraine, or other pressing concerns. “It’s not just about his time, it’s about the rest of government,” he added. “Ministers are paying attention to what’s going on, officials are following what’s going on; people will be thinking about, what are the various scenarios we need to be planning for, in case there are changes.”
With Johnson asking wavering MPs what policies they would like to see implemented, there are also concerns that policy decisions civil servants believed had been settled could now be reversed.
The prime minister has come under intense pressure, including from some members of his cabinet, to reconsider the increase in national insurance contributions due to take effect in April.
Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, wrung the commitment to the tax rise from Johnson in exchange for signing off on a surge in spending on the NHS, and sees himself as the representative of the Tory tradition of sound money.
Sunak’s aides insist there have been no conversations between the pair about postponing or canceling the increase, and Johnson’s spokesperson insisted on Tuesday there were “no plans” to do so.
But government insiders fear the government’s stance on this and other issues may now be in flux as Johnson bids to win over skeptics in his own party in advance of a potential no confidence vote.
Those policies that have been announced recently – including the freeze on the BBC license fee, and the enhanced involvement of the military in tackling small boat Channel crossings – appear to be aimed at placating rightwing backbenchers.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism