How is it going for Boris Johnson? 'Bad, very bad' says senior Tory adviser

Boris Johnson delivered a calamitous speech to the CBI on Monday, which capped a tough few weeks for the prime minister. Credit: No10

How serious are things for Boris Johnson and the Conservatives, right now? “Oh, they are bad, very bad,” said one senior adviser within the party, without hesitation, when I asked that question.

And it’s certainly the case that backbench Tory MPs are worried – after weeks of bad headlines for the party, triggered by the standards debacle around Owen Paterson but spreading into questions around policy and competence.

But my conversations also suggest that the idea of MPs preparing a coup against the prime minister (with talk of letters of no confidence being submitted) are likely to be somewhat overblown.

It is true that for some, the PM’s speech to the CBI, with its stumbles, strange impressions, and that random reference to Peppa Pig World, felt too much.

“It feels like Boris has done what we needed – and the joke isn’t so funny now,” said one senior Tory who has been sympathetic to the PM. He described Johnson as somewhat “anarchic” which worked for Brexit and the 2019 election but wasn’t what was needed now.

But they said that even Johnson’s most committed backbench critics had only reached “first base” when it came to wanting to try to remove him – arguing that there was no agreement on a possible successor yet.

Another agreed it had been a terrible two weeks, and there was a “fair level of discontent” with clear policy rebellions.

They said it was true that Johnson’s appeal to MPs had been his ability to push through Brexit and win in 2019 but added: “He has an 80-seat majority and would win a confidence vote- even if it damaged him.”

All that said – the question of “cut through” is being discussed heavily among Tory MPs – who have watched as the sleaze row, starting with Paterson, spiralled into shifting polls – with Labour catching up or taking over in some.

It's given Keir Starmer a new confidence in his performances in Parliament. Moreover, the data around the prime minister doesn’t look great.

The YouGov tracker on whether people think Johnson is doing well or badly is heading in one direction. After a short period - at the height of the vaccination programme - in which the positive line was ahead, the disapproval gap for Johnson has widened steadily.

Worse for the PM – is a shift among those who voted leave in the referendum. In this key group – ever since the PM took over – more people have praised his performance than criticised it.

But now – for the first time – the lines have crossed even here – with 51% saying he is doing badly, compared to 45% saying he’s doing well.

All of that will be deeply worrying for Downing Street and their frustration is palpable.

When I saw the prime minister last week during his train announcement he hit out at the “miserable” take of the media, which he said focused on the parts of the scheme not going ahead – instead of the bits that were happening.

He seems to feel the same about the watering down of the social care policy, as well.

The problem for the PM – is not always the policy itself – but the way he initially pitched it.

But on that there is another piece of YouGov polling that is interesting.

It shows that when it comes to government U-turns – more people see them as a “good sign” – because it shows ministers are willing to listen and change their mind, than as a “bad sign” of incompetence and weakness. Johnson may want to hold onto that right now – and the conclusion of another Cabinet minister, close to him, who told me: “Nothing in politics is ever as bad [or as good] as it feels in the moment”.