Retribution or reaching out? The challenge the wounded PM now faces

After surviving the confidence vote, Boris Johnson has started the day urging his party to unite following his “decisive” victory, and get on with delivering its priorities – as if his little local troubles with MPs are now behind him.

But having faced down the rebels for now – with his authority substantially weakened – the immediate question is how he breaches the bitter divide in his party which is now out in the open.

There are suggestions from his allies in some newspapers today that retribution will be wreaked on some of the MPs who have been particularly strident about his leadership.

The PM has been ruthless before, withdrawing the whip in 2019 from dozens of Conservatives who would not support his Brexit policy.

Downing Street sources are dismissive this morning of the prospect of punishments for disloyalty – one telling me: “If you do that, you dig two graves and one is your own”.

The PM’s former longstanding adviser Will Walden also cautions against Number 10 seeing the leadership challenge as a “schoolyard fight” for which detractors need to be “punished”.

A summer reshuffle is being discussed, and some of those critical of the PM have indicated they would welcome a change of approach. A former minister on the One Nation wing of the party tells me: “He’s badly wounded and it’s up to him whether he reaches out or goes into the bunker.”

But this is where a wounded leader is between a rock and a hard place. If he carries out a “unity” cabinet reshuffle, he risks looking beholden to the rebels and having to ditch parts of his agenda.

Some of those who decided to back the prime minister yesterday were offered the prospect of ministerial jobs. But to make way for new ministers, space needs to be cleared and anyone who is sacked risks becoming another enemy.

As one rebel put it: “He’s stuck. If he lurches right he risks losing more support than he gains, if he doesn’t then the right might decide they need a new champion too.”

The MP predicts a “foolhardy charge at enemy lines” potentially over the Northern Ireland protocol, a prospect that the Irish foreign minister has already sounded the alarm about.

Other MPs suggest the issue of tax cuts will need to be reopened – with the prime minister now vulnerable to demands from some in his party to use more “Conservative” methods to help people with the cost of living.

But having fewer resources to tackle the NHS backlog or levelling up projects will also create opposition and claims of broken promises.

In his letter to MPs yesterday, two of the key policies Mr Johnson mentioned as evidence of his government delivering on its pledges were the social care cap – funded by controversial tax rises – and the Rwanda migration policy, wildly popular with some of his MPs and horrifying to others.

A big majority was once a weapon to push through difficult policies, but the PM will now need to decide whether retribution or reaching out is his best hope of containing the rebellion, which will only be further sharpened if the Conservatives lose two by-elections this month.

Source: News.sky.com

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