Cabinet ministers rowed in behind Boris Johnson on Wednesday after a torrid three weeks at Westminster, as Downing Street sought to play down divisions between No 10 and the Treasury.
Johnson’s spokesperson rebuffed widespread reports of a split between the prime minister and his chancellor, Rishi Sunak, while cabinet ministers said counter-briefings were irritating colleagues.
Johnson has had a tumultuous three weeks since spearheading the botched attempt to protect the disgraced MP Owen Paterson, culminating in scores of Conservative backbenchers declining to back the government’s social care plans.
But two cabinet ministers defended Johnson on Wednesday and said key pledges on transport and social care were being broadly well received by business, though one warned of the need to stop “unforced errors” becoming a pattern.
Johnson was cheered by his MPs at the start of his appearance at PMQs, after a three-week period that has included several backbench rebellions and some senior Tories expressing concern about his grip on government.
Party sources said they believed that although polls had been showing declining support, the Conservative vote was holding up well in Bexley and Old Sidcup, the scene of one of two byelections next week. The other, in Sir David Amess’s former seat of Southend West, is not being contested by other mainstream parties.
“At the moment we are very much in the mindset that there have been individual bumps and scrapes which have not taken the whole thing off course,” one cabinet minister said.
Asked about splits with No 11, they said: “There is a tendency to panic among people who do not quite understand the PM and his appeal. No one likes unforced errors but there is no need to make it a crisis. Ultimately what people see is a prime minister who doing something about social care for the first time in decades.”
The minister said the show of support in the Commons showed that dissenters – including those who have reportedly sent in letters of no confidence – were out of touch.
“You can see people feel the PM is being unfairly treated. Look at PMQs, the boys and girls turned out and made a lot of noise for him. This is nothing like how it was when Theresa May was on her last legs.”
Another loyal cabinet minister dismissed the idea of Johnson losing his political touch as “all overblown”. They suggested Johnson’s fumbling with his CBI speech may have resulted from an aide handing him the pages in the wrong order, adding that Johnson “isn’t the kind of person who would blame someone”.
Asked if the prime minister was upset that the Treasury was briefing against him, Johnson’s press secretary said: “I’m not going to get into anonymous source quotes. The prime minister and the entire government are focused on delivering people’s priorities.”
Pressed further on how she would characterise the relationship between No 10 and the Treasury at the moment, the press secretary said: “I have seen various anonymous-source quotes that I am not going to go into but the prime minister, the chancellor and the entire government is focused simply on delivering people’s priorities. We’ve got an incredibly ambitious agenda and that is what we are focused on.”
During their exchange in the Commons, Keir Starmer ribbed Johnson about the disquiet of Tory MPs, asking: “Who knows if he’ll make it to the next election?” At another point the Labour leader quipped: “I think he’s lost his place in his notes again.”
“Is everything OK, prime minister?” Starmer added, prompting the prime minister to reply: “I tell you what is not working, is that line of attack,” to noisy cheers from his backbenchers.
Earlier on Wednesday the justice secretary, Dominic Raab, praised Johnson and defended his advisers, whom several sources have accused of failing to stand up to the PM.
He said Johnson was “focused on the job at hand” and was an “ebullient, bouncy, optimistic, Tiggerish character, and he livens up his speeches in a way that few politicians past and present have done, but actually there is a steeliness to him as a prime minister and indeed his team, and we work as a team.”