Coronavirus has changed Boris Johnson, and that makes Tories nervous | Rafael Behr | Opinion

If the Conservative party had known last year that it was recruiting a leader to handle a pandemic, would it have chosen differently?

Jeremy Hunt’s credentials as a former health secretary might have counted more, but not much. Get in the Tardis and go back to a Tory hustings in 2019. Tell the audience about coronavirus and how managerial diligence is the quality needed most in a prime minister. The audience is unmoved. “Project Fear,” they groan. They only want to know if Boris Johnson delivers Brexit and wins a general election, which he does.

Returning to May 2020, we find some Tory MPs grumbling about the government’s coronavirus response. The message is confusing, the grip is weak. These are just ripples of dissent and Johnson will have to get a lot more wrong before his party is seriously disappointed. But ripples on the surface indicate deeper faultlines.

The tension is between Conservatives who are impatient to get the country out of quarantine, citing the cost of mothballing the economy, and those who fear that relaxing lockdown gives the virus new momentum to kill.

That is a difference of ideology and temperament. The lockdown sceptics are suspicious of anything that involves the state paying people’s salaries or telling them how to behave. They don’t like quarantine in much the same way that they don’t like the Health and Safety Executive or the European Union. They see bailouts and furloughs as sleepwalking towards socialism.

Johnson does not want to upset MPs who hold that view, partly because his own instincts tilt that way. Also, picking fights with the Tory right is a hazardous business for party leaders. Buying their loyalty with wacky policy is the usual alternative. But Johnson has had Covid-19 and he knows it cannot be treated with an enterprising spirit alone. He also has counsel from scientists that the virus is too prevalent to allow much unregulated activity.

Confusion around the government’s nebulous new “stay alert” message earlier this week stemmed from a conflict between clinical facts and a political demand for new facts when existing ones don’t suit a certain ideological prejudice. Hence the bizarre contortion of England – and only England – changing the rules, while keeping them mostly the same. Johnson wants to lean out of quarantine, but with his feet planted in the lockdown zone.

Some Tories who wish their leader had taken a bolder leap blame his sobering sojourn in intensive care. There is a feeling that this cautious prime minister, creeping out of quarantine in deference to doctors, is not the maverick daredevil they hired last year. This is not the “Boris” brand spirit that was advertised so often in the Daily Telegraph. They whisper that he has lost his bottle.

It is true that Johnson’s manner is altered and that serious illness leaves psychological scars. But there is a simple political equation being studied in Downing Street. Johnson’s reputation in the early stages of the crisis was protected by fair-minded public recognition that the disease was to blame for killing people, not the politicians trying to stop the disease. That could change in a second spike where infections can be linked back to premature easing of quarantine restrictions.

Keir Starmer’s offer of constructive opposition is calibrated to match public aversion to gratuitous point-scoring in a crisis. The hostility can easily be dialled up if the national mood sours.

Senior Tories say that Johnson is warily respectful of Starmer, noting the sure-footed start he has made, but much more troubled by Nicola Sturgeon. The Scottish first minister has institutional powers to undermine the authority of a Tory prime minister whose charisma loses its magnetism north of Berwick.

Most Westminster eyes are focused on day-to-day politics, but Tory strategists have not forgotten next year’s Scottish parliamentary election and the wrecking ball of another independence referendum that still hovers over Downing Street.

Anything that can be cast as arrogance and complacency is toxic for Johnson, especially when it has a class component. It does not look good when the rules are amended in a lopsided way so that retired bankers can get to the golf course, while low-paid workers must travel back to precarious jobs through the Covid-19 miasma.

Opposition MPs are alert to that asymmetry but so too are Tories in “red wall” constituencies in the Midlands, northern England and Wales – Labour bastions until last December.

Johnson would not be in power without those seats and he won them by overcoming deep-rooted anti-Tory culture. Labour’s hold had been weakening for a generation, but it was broken by the combination of Brexit and Johnson’s unique salesmanship, seducing parts of the electorate that would not otherwise consider endorsing a Conservative candidate.

He managed it in two London mayoral elections and, while the formula that swayed the liberal metropolis in the 2000s is different to the one that worked in Brexitland, the magic ingredient – the “Boris” touch – is the same. It is notable how quickly the effect wore off in London once Johnson was no longer the candidate.

Those Boris party voters are not Tories in any traditional sense. Euroscepticism aside, they do not have much in common with the small-state, market-obsessed, Thatcherite cultists who seem now to define English liberty as the inalienable right to catch and spread a deadly disease. That is a niche position when most of the country just wants rules that make sense and a government that provides a sturdy financial safety net.

The prime minister has tied himself in a knot trying with one hand to take dictation from science, while with the other hand feeding an insatiable ideological beast that won’t digest evidence. The contradiction is intrinsic to the whole project. Johnson’s appeal to the Tory party last year was that he could be liked by people who hate Tories. That solved one problem by creating another one: keeping the support of people who had never voted Conservative before in their lives might involve doing things in government that lifelong Conservatives would never do.

That tension was buried by the election result and Brexit, but the pandemic is bringing it to the surface. Dealing with coronavirus is an expensive, intrusive, big-state business. Not much about the actions required to contain a pandemic and support the economy through national convalescence match the “Boris” brand that Conservative MPs thought they were getting last year. Their frustration will grow. He will try to satisfy them without doing exactly what they want, which is a proven formula for party division, dysfunctional government and failure at every stage of the Covid-19 crisis.

Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist

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