Tensions over the government’s Internal Market Bill have boiled over, amid Conservative frustrations about the Prime Minister’s recent handling of Brexit and coronavirus.
An anonymous source, familiar with ongoing discussions within the party, has told The Oxford Blue that rebels have demanded a Cabinet reshuffle or the PM risks losing further support among his backbenchers.
According to the source, rebels want Johnson to remove Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, and Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, from the government over their respective handling of coronavirus and exam results.
Frustrated MPs also want former party chair James Cleverly installed in “major office” and the return of Jeremy Hunt to the Foreign Office, the source says. Hunt resigned as Foreign Secretary in July 2019 after his defeat by Johnson in the party’s leadership contest.
Meanwhile, Simon Hoare, Conservative MP for North Dorset, told The Blue that “there needs to be a kind of recalibration in government and in the way government governs”, encouraging the Prime Minister to engage in “meaningful conversations” with backbench MPs to avoid “falling into tiger traps” over issues like Brexit and free school meals.
“Government reshuffles do happen and when the time comes for the next strategic reshuffle, I would urge the Prime Minister to use the opportunity to signal that the composition of government is going to be wider and deeper, and include a broader range of views and standpoints”.
“There is a reservoir open for Boris Johnson to fish in, in order to have a much better engagement with the parliamentary Conservative Party and backbenchers”.
“Anybody who has the honour and opportunity to lead our country must grasp that opportunity”.
Hoare, who abstained on the Internal Market Bill vote, said that if such discussions about the PM’s future were happening, he was “not privy to those efforts” but said that “nobody goes on forever and we all have a shelf life”.
Asked about Johnson’s longevity, Hoare said: “I don’t know, I really don’t know. We are in such peculiar times over Brexit and now Covid, so the government faces some very, very big challenges”.
Boris Johnson does not face any immediate challenge to his leadership but Conservative MPs are already believed to be contemplating the Prime Minister’s future behind closed doors, despite the party winning its largest parliamentary majority since 1987 at last year’s general election. Michael Gove and Priti Patel have been discussed as potential successors among some backbench MPs, should a leadership challenge take place.
Johnson has faced fresh criticism over the Internal Market Bill from Conservative MPs on both sides of the Brexit argument. The government admits that the Bill would breach international law as it overwrites part of the Withdrawal Agreement agreed with the EU in January.
Fearing a Commons rebellion next week, the Government last night agreed to table an amendment that would give Parliament a vote on whether ministers will be able to activate clauses in the Bill that override the original Brexit deal. The U-turn came shortly after the resignation of Lord Keen, the UK government’s law officer for Scotland.
Hoare, Chair of the Northern Ireland Select Committee, said that he was able to back “ninety-five percent” of the new Bill, but that issues about the future of the Northern Ireland protocol remained and that, “our word on the international stage should mean something”.
The government is facing rising criticism for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, with critics saying that messaging about local restrictions has been confusing and that tests are widely unavailable, even to key workers. Johnson has also been forced into a series of high-profile U-turns in recent months, over free school meals, the use of face masks in shops and the A-level results scandal.
Hoare told The Blue that Conservative MPs will have to decide if a landslide victory in December will translate into success again in 2024, adding that Keir Starmer’s Labour frontbench poses “a serious challenge to the government”.
Downing Street and Conservative Campaign Headquarters have also been contacted for comment.