Boris Johnson's blunders and U-turns are distracting from the serious issues of the day – John McLellan

Where do we start this week? Perhaps Scottish Finance Secretary Kate Forbes giving local authorities the green light to ramp up council tax after short-changing them once again, despite having a record £41 billion block grant to play with.
Even the anodyne duo of Ant and Dec are making jokes at Boris Johnson's expense (Picture: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)Even the anodyne duo of Ant and Dec are making jokes at Boris Johnson's expense (Picture: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)
Even the anodyne duo of Ant and Dec are making jokes at Boris Johnson's expense (Picture: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

Or maybe her decision to slash business rates relief after March for retail and hospitality, just as the sectors are bracing themselves for another lost Christmas thanks to Omicron?

And what the Fraser of Allander institute called the “gimmick” of claiming that Scotland has the most UK’s competitive business rates system which is now worth less than £30 a year for an average business.

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Then there is the £400 million slump in Scottish income tax because an underperforming Scottish economy is producing low earnings growth, despite the fact that Scottish tax-payers stump up £500m more than if UK income tax policy had been maintained. The Scottish government is having a Laffer curve.

Closer to home, another £500,000 is being thrown at the Edinburgh tram inquiry which hasn’t produced a word despite already costing £12m and lasting longer than the Iraq Inquiry, the Nuremberg Trials and the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia which set the benchmark for diplomatic complexity. It only took a mere five years to end 80 years of religious and dynastic strife across Europe, but the tram inquiry has been bumbling on for seven with no end in sight.

And then there is the independent review of Edinburgh Council’s management culture published yesterday, making around 50 recommendations for improvements to an authority with a track record of grand designs, bold ambitions, and high statements of principle but without one of delivery to match.

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SNP accused of opening the door to 'massive' council tax hikes

There is no shortage of news, but everything is overshadowed by the crisis at the heart of the UK government in what has been a tempestuous autumn even without the slow responses to Storm Arwen.

Rebellion after rebellion, blunder after blunder, U-turn after U-turn, and the calamitous Peppa Pig speech to the CBI have combined to wreck the Prime Minister’s authority and Conservative whips have a mammoth task on their hands to head off the biggest revolt yet, as furious Tory MPs line up to vote down Omicron Plan B on Tuesday, with Scottish leader Douglas Ross prominent amongst those who do not support vaccine passports.

With the prospect of compulsory face masks and other restrictions on liberty announced by the Prime Minister only a day after his deputy Dominic Raab said Plan B wasn’t necessary, 30 Tory MPs have already said they will vote against the legislation and Labour votes might be needed for it to pass.

This showdown has been brewing since September; first five Conservative MPs defied the whip to vote against the National Insurance rise, in November the block on Owen Paterson’s suspension was opposed by 13, and a fortnight later the defiance had risen to 18 in the vote over the social care cap. But many more were conveniently absent, turning what should have been foregone conclusions into contests, quite an achievement for a government with an 80-seat majority.

After the HS2 reversal and the U-turn on Owen Paterson’s suspension and his resignation within days of the narrow vote, whips shorn of credibility have little to offer MPs angered by the prospect of reimposed Covid restrictions, and with so many rebels of one sort or another it should be no surprise that Conservative MPs, MSPs and peers are speculating about Mr Johnson’s future or lack of it.

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When even TV stars as anodyne and inoffensive as Ant and Dec are telling millions of viewers that he’s only Prime Minister for now ─ technically accurate under any circumstances ─ and Andrew Neil tells 1.1 million Twitter followers that Mr Johnson’s tenure is in its final days, it’s hard to see how discipline can be restored if the whips’ bargaining currency of Prime Ministerial patronage loses value by the day.

The Downing Street Christmas party fiasco could have been damped down had the reports not been dismissed out of hand when they first emerged. And if it wasn’t bad enough when adviser Allegra Stratton gave her teary resignation speech after the leak of the video showing her joking about the party which Mr Johnson said didn’t happen, the new claim that his communications director made a speech and presented awards puts the vent at the heart of the Number 10 operation and it’s beyond doubt that a social gathering took place in contravention of rules Mr Johnson had only just announced.

When local newspapers across the UK feature grieving families whose loved ones died while officials celebrated, it’s as bad as it gets.

But it could indeed get much worse if the allegations of lying to his own ethics adviser’s investigation into who funded renovations to his Downing Street flat prove true and it’s already another front on which the Prime Minister has to defend his reputation when Omicron, inflation, the immigration crisis, the threat to Ukraine, and indeed the threat to the Union, need his undivided attention. With a new baby joining his toddler, it would be a tall enough order even if everything was running smoothly.

The 1922 Committee treasurer Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown yesterday expressed hope that the Christmas break will be a new beginning, but it was hardly a ringing endorsement.

The Prime Minister’s allies point to the lack of a challenger, but with a new YouGov poll putting Labour four points ahead, the North Shropshire by-election this Thursday expected to be ugly, and defiance growing stronger by the day, one will surely emerge if 54 no-confidence letters arrive to trigger a contest.

Here, the news agenda needs to be relentlessly focussed on the SNP’s record, especially if a General Election is called in 2023, but Scottish Conservative foot soldiers can’t go on the offensive while defending chaos in Westminster. Something must change and change quickly but one way or another this daily Number 10 soap opera has to stop.

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