‘The PM was having a good week, then the macho No 10 culture intervened’

After a tumultuous week, the prime minister’s standard billows again over the ranks of his parliamentary party.

This has been an extraordinary few days in politics. The long-awaited news of the vaccine lifted the spirits, with the PM striking the right note about the need for caution to temper the bursting hope the Pfizer jab offers of an exhausted country. A strong performance quickly followed by a warm telephone call with president-elect Joe Biden. A conversation that lifted the morale of the many millions of us who want to have a warm relationship with our greatest ally’s new head of state.

And then damn it all, the No. 10 machine, again, with its fractious macho culture, conspired to pluck defeat from the hands of the PM victory. This latest and most egregious act of self-harm led to a sulphuric outbreak of rage on the Conservative benches. Boris Johnson, our greatest asset, again flattened by Downing St feuding and the people we thought were hired to advance his cause, not damage his brand. It was as unreal, as it was infuriating. The surrealism of the moment was crystallised on Thursday morning as cabinet ministers were dispatched to tour the radio and TV studios to run the line that the parliamentary party was in rude health and marching in tune with the No. 10 operation. A nonsense line met with incredulity from those who heard it.

Had these cabinet high-ups not noticed the emergence in recent weeks of Jake Berry’s Northern Research Group and Mark Harper’s Covid Recovery Group? Two privy counsellors and long-standing Conservative MPs who had given up trying to capture the PM’s ear by conventional means, feeling forced to pursue their concerns by establishing internal pressure groups with a public face. Groups that scores of our colleagues have flocked to join in their own yelp of pain.

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For months the tea room has echoed to the concerns of these same MPs who, after a warm reception by the PM in the lobby, have been rebuffed in their request for a meeting by his impenetrable iron curtain. All PMs’ diaries are heavily policed, but with the current PM there has been a ruthless and studied determination to keep his MPs away from him. But through all this unhappiness, there has been the constant cry “we want our PM back”. So as the smoke clears and the dust settles, the PM has a fantastic opportunity to reignite his relationship with the parliamentary party. We want him to succeed and to be part of his success and we want his chief-of-staff role to go to someone who is as happy on the stairwells of No. 10 as he or she is in the corridors of Westminster. There is huge value to a smile, a warm greeting and a considered discussion. Patience matched to charm and a brain is a powerful combination.

And, for a revitalised PM, opportunity now sits alongside threat in the challenges that lie ahead. Rolling out the vaccine will be a mammoth logistical task, securing the Brexit trade deal is an imperative whose time is upon us, and in 2021 we need to get the economy motoring again and our constituents back into work. We have to get these things right. As Boris Johnson meets these challenges, he must roll up his sleeves safe in the knowledge that his team in No 10 is focusing on the job at hand.

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