But fear and charisma only work so long as they are accompanied by competence. The backbenchers who once feared Mr Johnson and Mr Cummings are now more worried about the fury of their own constituents. There is talk of emperors without clothes and wizards behind the curtain. The ministers Mr Johnson demotdemoted in his early months may now have a chance for revenge.
Downing Street has woken up to the fact that it has a partymanagement problem on its hands and is making an effort to hold more meetings with backbenchers and ministerial assistants. The “town hall” faction in Downing Street—people who worked with Mr Johnson when he was mayor of London, led by Sir Eddie Lister— are much more emollient than Mr Cummings. The whips should regain some power when they can do their arm-twisting in person rather than over Zoom. The leadership can also take some comfort from the fact that, despite much bad news, the nine polls taken since June 1st show the Tories leading Labour by between two and eight points.
But righting the ship will be difficult. The public’s growing distrust of the powers-that-be has been exacerbated by the progression from simple messages (“don’t go out”) to more nuanced ones (“be aware”), and there are plenty of timber-shaking covid storms on the horizon. Unemployment could surge to over 3m when the furlough scheme winds down. Britain’s poor performance is becoming painfully obvious as locked-down Britons watch images of continentals relaxing in cafes and returning to work.
More and more people worry that Mr Johnson was brought in to solve one problem—getting Brexit done—but is now confronted with an entirely different one. A Cabinet that was selected on the basis of ideological soundness rather than competence seems overwhelmed by events. Two figures, Gavin Williamson, the education secretary who has blown hot and cold over whether children can go back to school, and Robert Jenrick, the local-government minister, who is entangled in a scandal with an insalubrious party donor, look particularly dismal. Mr Cummings’s formidable skills in running campaigns have not translated to governing the country. You can’t gaslight a pandemic.