Will Boris Johnson survive 2022? Here are the issues that could make or break the Prime Minister

It should have been a defining year for Boris Johnson for largely positive reasons.

As the Prime Minister reaches the halfway point of a parliamentary term with an 80-strong majority, senior Tories had expected to begin showing the public tangible returns on his flagship promises to "level up", cut taxes and take control of Britain’s borders.

Mr Johnson also stood to benefit from the reflected glory of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations, the third ever Commonwealth Games to take place in England and, arguably, the country’s best hope at a World Cup since 1966.

Instead, to use the terminology of Nadine Dorries, the Culture Secretary, Conservative MPs will return to Parliament after the Christmas period with talk of potential "regicide" on their lips.

Boris Johnson has seen a sharp decline in popularity

Mr Johnson faces the triple threat of Covid-19 and internal war over the Government’s response to the virus, a looming cost of living crisis, and a cacophony of sleaze and incompetence allegations levelled at the Prime Minister and his Number 10 operation.

One government source who believes talk of potential leadership challenges is usually "overblown" admitted that: "There are certainly people in the party who are trying to get rid of him quicker than I realised."

Probe into No11 flat refurbishment could spell trouble for Boris Johnson

The threat to Mr Johnson was crystallised by the Commons mutiny over his Plan B of Covid-19 restrictions earlier this month. Those voting against the Government ranged from serial rebels to moderate former ministers and new MPs. 

One lesson for No10 was that many of the 2019 intake of MPs, including the dozens of MPs who broke through Labour’s Red Wall, had "gone rogue", having "not been given either discipline or love", a government source said.

In truth, a sizeable number of newer MPs see little value in blindly toeing the party line when they believe that the precariousness of the Prime Minister’s position leaves him unable to offer them long-term prospects.

The Tory factions causing problems for Boris Johnson

One sword of Damocles hanging over Mr Johnson’s head is the inquiry into parties held at No10 allegedly in breach of Covid-19 rules. But a former government aide warned that the biggest threat to Mr Johnson lay in a looming investigation by Kathryn Stone, the Commons Standards Commissioner, into the funding of the renovations to the Prime Minister’s flat above No11 Downing Street. 

Earlier this month, Mr Johnson was accused of misleading Lord Geidt, his standards adviser, after an Electoral Commission investigation found he had asked a Tory donor to pay thousands of pounds to fund the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat. Mr Johnson’s advisers now fear that Ms Stone could open her own inquiry.

"If she finds him guilty it’s almost impossible for her, even if she’s in the most charitable mood, not to suspend him for a period of time," said the former aide. "There is no bigger danger to him on the horizon," the source said. The Prime Minister would be likely to face overwhelming pressure from MPs and the public to resign in such a scenario.

‘Politics could soon be dominated by living standards’

Below Mr Johnson’s flat though, in the No11 office of Rishi Sunak, one of the biggest concerns is the rising cost of living. Families are expected to face huge financial pressures this year, including as a result of the planned National Insurance Contributions (NICs) rise from April. 

NI tax calculator

At a time when Mr Johnson knows he must show that he is delivering on his pledge to "level up", many of the poorest households feeling even more financial strain than they did before the 2019 election is a deeply damaging prospect for the Prime Minister.

James Frayne, the pollster and founding partner of Public First, an influential policy research agency, said the NICs increase and an expected rise in the energy price cap "could hit working class voters so hard they might never forgive”. He added: “Politics could soon be dominated by living standards – a bad place for any incumbent government.”

At the same time, Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary, warns in The Telegraph that the Government will pay a "heavy price" if the NICs rise is not seen by the public to be spent wisely on the NHS.

Mr Johnson is separately conscious that his pledge to "take back control" of Britain’s borders will be doubted if voters continue to see images of scores of migrants crossing the Channel illegally.

Michael Gove’s White Paper setting out the Government’s proposed levelling up policies is currently due to be published early in January, having been delayed from its intended publication earlier this month. 

Despite Covid-19 still taking up significant time across Whitehall, ministers are conscious that Mr Gove’s proposals must appear urgently if they are to stand any chance of being implemented and having a tangible impact before the next election. 

For that reason, according to the Whitehall source, the paper is likely to appear "in the next couple of weeks, come what may". 

Will Tanner, a former deputy head of the No10 policy unit, who now runs the Onward think tank, said that Mr Johnson will be starting what should have been a "dream year" with "a knot in his stomach".

He added: "The future of his premiership depends on getting three big things right in the first few months of 2022 – getting coronavirus under control, making good on levelling up and kickstarting economic growth."

Risk of leadership bids from Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss

Mr Gove’s responsibility for the levelling up agenda places a colossal amount of responsibility on the man who famously ditched Mr Johnson during the 2016 leadership contest to launch his own bid. The Prime Minister has also urged the Levelling Up Secretary to find an urgent solution to the post-Grenfell fire safety crisis that has trapped many leaseholders in their homes.

Another urgent issue on Mr Johnson’s desk is the post-Brexit negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol, which became an even bigger headache for the Prime Minister when Lord Frost resigned from the Cabinet.

Mr Johnson believes the talks must be resolved by the end of February, ahead of the run-up to the Northern Ireland Assembly election. Ministers believe that there is a realistic prospect of the poll resulting in a Sinn Fein first minister, which could herald a new era of frostiness between Stormont Castle and Downing Street.

Boris Johnson problems

Post-Brexit negotiations have now been passed to Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, who is considered one of the most enthusiastic candidates to succeed him as Prime Minister. 

"Liz is shameless," said one Government figure – an attribute that would surely assist Ms Truss in continuing Lord Frost’s hardball approach with Brussels.

Ultimately, though, Ms Truss will feel significant pressure to deliver Lord Frost’s stated aims, including to significantly scale back border checks on goods, to bolster her own leadership credentials – if not solely out of concern for the political survival of her boss.

Several sources played down talk – wishful thinking by some – of Ms Truss and Mr Sunak, the Chancellor, actively plotting bids to succeed Mr Johnson. But one said: "You’re delusional if you think Liz and Rishi aren’t preparing leadership bids."

Change needed in Downing Street if Boris Johnson is to survive

If Mr Johnson is to stand a chance of making it to, and through, next summer without a leadership challenge, the consensus among both backbenchers and ministers appears to be that significant changes are needed within No10. 

In an extraordinary intervention, Nikki da Costa, a highly regarded former director of legislative affairs under Mr Johnson and Theresa May, told The Telegraph that the "whole system" in No10 "doesn’t work", with "no weight given to advance sight".

Profile | Boris Johnson

Labour has opened up an eight-point lead over the Tories in the wake of "party-gate", according to a poll of 25,000 people commissioned by The Sunday Times.

One former Cabinet minister said of the Prime Minister: "He wants to look at everything but he’s not a deliverer so he doesn’t grip it. He looks exhausted.”

A government source said: "There will have to be a change in behaviour in the New Year. . There will need to be a different approach with Parliament. And we need to restore trust with the public."

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