Boris Johnson starts meetings to win over backbenchers who tell him: 'Be more Conservative'

Boris Johnson says he wants to focus on priorities like Ukraine, rather than parties - but its fair to say that behind the scenes, a lot of his time is going into trying to save his leadership.

I’ve been told he’s holding face-to-face meetings with several MPs (15 on Wednesday), as well as phoning them, to try to persuade them to back him.

This comes alongside a new Whatsapp group – set up by the PM’s most loyal lieutenants - called "Support Group" - that now has 98 members, all Tory MPs who are being urged to chat to other colleagues about backing Johnson’s leadership.

They are now being invited to three meetings a day – two in person in the chief whip’s office and one virtual - to which 30 or 40 are regularly turning up.

As for those in-person PM chats (MPs tell me they’ve never had so much face time with their leader) I’ve heard that Johnson has been claiming to colleagues that it’s a Labour/media witch-hunt - arguing that he’s faced worse before and bounced back, insisting that he’ll bounce back again.

What are Tory backbenchers telling the PM?

According to one source familiar with the chats, the number one message from backbenchers is ‘we need you to be more Conservative'

It seems they are using these meetings not just to express frustration about partygate allegations, but frustration about wider questions of policy.

I’ve heard the increase in National Insurance in April has been raised, plans to increase corporation tax next year, dealing with the small boats crossing from France into Dover and levelling up. Some Tory MPs tell me they are also fed up with Covid measures – like the vaccine mandate for doctors and nurses, something that surely pushes against Johnson’s own instincts.

Can the PM change any of this?

One ally tells me they think he is interested in reversing the NI hike due to be increased in April - which was even raised by Jacob Rees-Mogg at a recent Cabinet meeting.

But could he really stop the rise of 1.25 percentage points, as is being demanded by backbenchers worried about the cost of living, and the now-supportive Daily Mail?

If so, it is getting very late, as I understand there haven’t been any formal discussions between the PM and chancellor over this.

Moreover, the money is to be used to clear NHS backlogs and then ultimately help deliver the PM’s own promise to fix social care, made in his first speech on the steps of Downing Street.

If it doesn’t come from NI, where will it come from? No-one is likely to have the stomach for the other, arguably quite Conservative option, of cutting spending. The other clamour is over green levies, with MPs wanting them removed from electricity bills. The old plan was to move them to gas – which obviously can’t be done in the face of rising bills. Some say they could be taken into tax (as they are all specifically linked to commitments that stretch over 15 years) but that doesn’t sound likely. Other options are removing VAT from fuel bills or a more targeted approach like using the warm homes discount, or giving loans to companies to help them to cut bills for the most needy.

I believe these are all being actively considered.