How bad has this week been for Boris Johnson?

Credit: PA

It’s been a difficult few weeks for the prime minister - to say the least. As one senior Conservative put it to me- “it’s been bad, very bad”. 

Boris Johnson has been quoted telling colleagues that over the standards debacle he had crashed the car and had regrets. 

When I saw him on Thursday he denied some of the comments that have been quoted about him but clearly if he could turn back time, his decision to defend Owen Paterson against a sanction for lobbying would never have happened. 

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Everything that flowed since has been a nightmare for Johnson - from the need to immediately U-turn, to an unleashed scrutiny on MPs' second jobs, and then a Tory colleague trying to stall his attempts to clean up the mess. 

Johnson was perhaps hoping that a £96 billion pound investment in rail across the North of England and Midlands would mark a positive turn in his fortunes. But, if so, he’ll be disappointed by headline after headline in regional publications declaring the policy a betrayal. 

In his interview with ITV news - at the end of day spanning the country and talking to regional correspondents - his frustration with the media response was clear as he berated the “miserable” reaction to the announcement. 

So why was it so bad- given it is the biggest investment ever made in rail? 

In part, because of what some MPs see as Johnson’s habit to promise the world.

As Huw Merriman - the Conservative chair of parliament’s transport committee put it - "this is the danger of selling perpetual sunlight and leaving it to others to deliver moonlight".

It’s probably unfair to suggest that Johnson was passing the buck on delivering the policy given how many trains he travelled on yesterday talking to journalists along the way. 

But it’s clearly true that by promising repeatedly to deliver HS2 he left himself open to this accusation of betrayal and - much to the frustration of his team - media coverage that focused heavily on the negatives and barely on the positives. 

After all, this is a major investment, and the argument that it focuses more on local commuter connections than high speed links to London could certainly be persuasive in some communities.

Officials say there is also a value for money argument to move away from tens of billions of pounds in investment to increase journeys by just a few minutes. And one region - Greater Manchester - did quite well. 

There is also the political upside of no longer seeing massive building projects cutting through (new 2019) Tory Midlands seats where constituents wouldn’t actually benefit from HS2, clearly a motivation for part of the downgrade. 

But it’s not the project in full - without a stop in Bradford or a full new line to Leeds.

Will all of the money that would have been spent on the HS2 eastern leg and Manchester to Leeds route go to other forms of transport in the north?

In the Integrated Rail Plan document, Johnson argues that the change will free up money to invest in other forms of transport in the north - like buses and cycling.

But can he guarantee that the full difference (the government’s own document suggests the original plan could have cost £185bn) will go into these things? 

He couldn’t quite go that far - and one official suggested “guarantee” was a bit strong. 

In the end - that separate promise maybe what the prime minister is judged on in the end.

Not just delivering these changes in rail - which he promises will be in place before the end of the Parliament, but on improving the local bus links on which so many rely. 

So how bad is this overall? The polls have certainly shifted negatively for the Tories but as one cabinet minister put it to me- nothing is ever as good or as bad in politics, as it seems in the moment.

Johnson has created some difficulties right now with his rail announcement but he may well have saved himself a political headache later in a number of key swing seats.