Ask any opponent of Boris Johnson what winds them up about him and it won’t be very long before they mention bananas. The prime minister used the fruit as a campaigning device in the 2016 referendum, claiming that the EU dictates “what shape our bananas have got to be” as evidence of Brussels meddling. There was rather less behind the claim than merited the attention it got: European commission regulations merely divide bananas into classes so those buying them know what sort they are getting. But it was typical of Johnson’s ability to make a point in primary colours while winding up the other side.
This weekend, as the talks on a post-Brexit trade and security deal reach their endgame, Johnson might think the bananas have had their time. Things are different now. He spent yesterday on the phone to Ursula von der Leyen trying to break the negotiations out of their deadlock and he has less opportunity to play political games while trying to deal with Covid. But the state of his party is such that he does need a bold, colourful way of changing the political debate.
Things have been bad for months, with discomfort over the way the government repeatedly slipped up in the summer on exams and free school meals. But the stakes have been raised considerably by last week’s rebellion on the coronavirus restrictions, which was the largest since Johnson won his majority. Those measures passed, but only because Keir Starmer whipped the Labour party to abstain. The Tory revolt was potent because it didn’t come from just one wing of the party, nor from serial rebels. But, according to some of those Brexiters involved, the vote on Covid does still send a warning to the prime minister that he cannot be seen to compromise in this weekend’s talks.
The banana skins on which he could slip are lining up. The fallout from these talks will go on for months, whatever the final outcome. Conservative MPs are lying in wait for his next move on containing the pandemic. They expect the government to move to a more localised approach to the tier system, which would see their areas taken out of the toughest restrictions because the infection rates are far lower than neighbouring towns.
So far, No 10 has nimbly swerved a personal and bitter stand-off with the rebels, insisting that the prime minister understands how difficult the decisions are over putting areas into lockdown and making clear that a rebellion now won’t lead to someone being overlooked for promotion to the government in future. It’s a new, softly-softly approach designed to woo backbenchers feeling bruised by the confrontational style of Johnson’s former aide Dominic Cummings.
Since Cummings left, MPs report that Johnson seems more engaged with the party. “He’s been phoning a lot of us up just for chats,” says one MP who can’t come into parliament currently. “Ministers have been in touch too, which they weren’t doing before. There has been a complete change in attitude.” Johnson has also been spending more time in the socially distanced Commons tearoom.
This won’t make a great deal of difference if MPs feel they are being ultimately ignored in decision-making. Johnson had hoped that the start of the vaccination programme this week would give his party the resolve it needed to keep going with restrictions for a few months more. But no amount of vaccine good news can quell the anxiety backbenchers feel about businesses in their constituencies that may go to the wall long before life returns to “normal”. There are several very miserable months to get through first.
How does Johnson get through these months without slipping up? As well as expecting him to adopt a more sensible approach to the tiers when they are reviewed on 16 December, senior MPs are desperate for him to start reminding his party why he and they are Conservatives.
This might sound trite, but it makes sense when you consider that morale is so low on the Tory benches that it is common to hear former supporters of Johnson complaining that their party has ended up like a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour party. One senior MP says: “They are governing like a Corbyn administration would have done. The whole of public policy is now big state, anti-liberty, high spending, high borrowing, don’t worry about what the problem is because we will solve it with another £100bn.” Another complains: “We are not only in the awful position of having to implement Jeremy Corbyn’s economic policies but also his social policies. It feels very oppressive.”
A group of Tories met last week and agreed that the best way Johnson could bring the party back together and cheer up MPs was by creating clear dividing lines with Labour. “What we need is some votes in the new year to unite the Conservative party,” says one. “We have just spent a lot of money on defence: let’s have a vote on that. Why aren’t we having a vote so we can deport people who are murderers?”
Normal party politics was suspended for much of this year as politicians tried to reach a consensus on tackling the pandemic. But one feature of life returning to normal will surely be the two main parties articulating why they are different to one another beyond endless fights between Starmer and Johnson about basic competence and hindsight.
As part of this return to normal, Johnson needs to start lobbing some bananas around to rile his opponents. This was a strategy George Osborne became obsessed with to a major fault, but creating dividing lines with the opposition is important, especially when your own party is struggling. The former chancellor spent a great deal of his time laying banana skins for Ed Miliband’s Labour to slip on in the form of awkward votes and headline-grabbing policies. He often executed them clumsily and appeared to enjoy cutting welfare rather too much. But the principle was a good one: a party bands together when it is reminded of the beliefs of its opponents. The most united the Tory party has felt this year came when Starmer started demanding another national lockdown and Johnson temporarily refused. Conservative MPs suddenly remembered that there was a difference between their party and Labour.
More political votes would remind Conservatives that they are comfortable with pushing up the defence budget, while the current Labour party instinctively isn’t. They would remind MPs of the differences between the two parties on immigration, law and order and other issues that Johnson campaigned hard on in last year’s general election. They would also force Labour divisions to the fore, as has happened on Brexit in the past week. Starmer and his shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, have been publicly at odds over whether to vote in favour of any Brexit deal, with the shadow cabinet falling into two groups behind them. There are similar splits on policies across the board.
Up to this point, Starmer has been able to avoid much infighting, not because his party has resolved all its bitter differences from the Corbyn years but merely by avoiding taking any awkward decisions on policy. He hasn’t had much cause to, either: the pandemic has given the new leader an unusual amount of breathing space before he starts having to deal with tensions over domestic policy. By this point, Miliband was having to talk about what he stood for and make decisions about where Labour might be going on education reform. Starmer’s main strategy has been to let the government lose the next election while the opposition merely talks about competence, not its own positions. Aides such as Morgan McSweeney come from a tradition of trying to keep the party together, perhaps at the expense of ploughing ahead with radical changes that grab voters’ attention. Johnson is making it much easier for them to continue in this vein.
For Tory MPs to walk through different lobbies to Labour after a noisy Commons debate where the two parties articulate their differences over a policy would make a big difference to morale, binding them back together. It would also help party relations if Johnson made clear that not only is he deeply uncomfortable with some of the decisions he is having to take on Covid, his ministers are too. Steve Baker, the deputy chair of the Covid Recovery Group, wants Johnson to rein in his health ministers in particular. He says: “I am deeply alarmed that health ministers are so unabashed about the use of power to make deep incursions into our civil liberties. It’s perfectly possible to accept as I do that liberty must be curtailed to prevent harm to others but to simultaneously have a spirit of humility. I would hope Boris would re-establish in his ministers some Conservative caution about the dramatic use of state power.”
Baker has exported much of the model of the hugely influential European Research Group into the CRG. It is surely not lost on Johnson that his campaign for Brexit featured complaints about state meddling with bananas on a scale rather mild compared with telling people who they can and can’t have sex with, as well as whether scotch eggs constitute a “substantial meal”. Just as the Tory rebels are recycling the tactics of their Brexit campaigns, so Johnson needs to find his new political bananas so he can bring his party together and stop slipping up.
• Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of the Spectator