Boris Johnson deploys his favourite ‘dead cat' strategy, but he is perilously close to the last of his nine lives

Boris Johnson feels the heat at PMQs

Downing Street's latest disaster has cut through with the public as unmistakably as the I’m A Celebrity theme tune.

After being ridiculed by Ant and Dec on prime time television on Tuesday night, Wednesday was never going to be a good day for Boris Johnson. But even he could not have foreseen more than half the population telling a pollster to “get him out of here” and searches for “cancel Conservative membership” rising by 1,900 per cent.

Yet as Prime Minister’s Questions became box-office viewing, it seemed even feline cunning could not salvage what was undoubtedly the most difficult day of Mr Johnson’s two-year premiership.

It was in an article for The Telegraph that he first introduced the public to the “dead cat” ploy pioneered by his former campaign manager, the Australian political strategist Sir Lynton Crosby.

“Let us suppose you are losing an argument,” he wrote in March 2013. “The facts are overwhelmingly against you, and the more people focus on the reality the worse it is for you and your case.

“Your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as 'throwing a dead cat on the table, mate'.”

The beauty, he explained, was that people would still be “outraged, alarmed, disgusted” but talking about the dead cat rather than “the issue that has been causing you so much grief”.

Yet what we learned on Wednesday, as the Prime Minister shamelessly tried to bury the bad news of Downing Street’s “illegal” Christmas party with the introduction of new Covid-19 restrictions, is that a strategy without a strategist is a bit like a cat without whiskers. They tend to underestimate the danger ahead; they make misjudgments, they get disorientated and fall. In the worst cases, they become stuck and cannot be rescued.

Having entered No 10 as the cat’s whiskers with an 80-seat majority in December 2019, the Prime Minister had nine lives but now appears perilously close to spending them all.

Even more worryingly, the question increasingly being asked in Tory circles, reflecting the wrath of the wider electorate, is not how the party went ahead, or even why they lied about it, but “how on earth is Boris going to be able to get away with it again?”

Arguably the only chink of light for a PM undoubtedly on the precipice is that – like him – Conservative colleagues appear all too willing to blame the staff.

As one veteran MP who knows Mr Johnson well put it: “It’s bad but it’s not terminal.

“Are colleagues p—– off? Of course they are but everyone agrees the problem here is a woeful lack of experience both in the whips’ office and Downing Street itself.

“There is no one with any gravitas, no one even anticipating these crises, let alone with the ability to cope with them when they happen. Heads will have to roll – we need a fresh start.”

Whether the tearful resignation of Allegra Stratton, the aide caught on camera joking about the “fictional” party four days after it allegedly broke lockdown rules, will spark an exodus remains to be seen, however.

As one well-placed source explained: “The problem is Boris doesn’t want serious people in there because they are a threat to him. He doesn’t like grown-ups telling him what to do.

“But what he doesn’t seem to understand is this cuts deeper than simply people viewing it as puerile and childish. If the public has behaved with more maturity than Downing Street then it betrays a lack of seriousness at the heart of No 10. It shines the spotlight on the lack of quality of the Government. These are the people who are supposed to be running the country and they look decidedly third rate.”

Many explanations have been offered as to what has gone wrong, from the suggestion that “power has gone to the heads of young people intoxicated by their own importance” to the promotion of “amateurs with a total inability to understand political risk”.

As one insider put it: “They are entitled, clueless and with no regard for the serious nature of the office they inhabit.”

Another said: “They think that because they are running the country they can do what they like. They don’t seem to have learned any of the lessons of Barnard Castle.”

A third added: “No one looks forward to what this would look like on the front pages of the following day’s newspapers. Yes Boris was a journalist, but no one thought his sharp news sense was his greatest skill. Where is the Alastair Campbell-type figure thinking three steps ahead?”

As well as pointing to the inexperience of senior figures like communications director Jack Doyle and chief of staff Dan Rosenfield – both in their mid-40s – one source said Downing Street has been “plagued by squabbling” since the departure of their predecessors Lee Cain and Dominic Cummings.

Eyebrows were raised in February when Mr Johnson beefed up the team with Simone Finn and Henry Newman, both seen as allies of his wife, Carrie, who was blamed for “driving out” Sir Lynton. It came after another long-standing aide, Lord Udny-Lister, left No 10 in January.

“There is constant infighting, constant briefing against one another, all for power,” said the source. “Boris fell out with Lynton over Carrie and it’s been downhill ever since.”

It is thought “master of the dark arts” Sir Lynton, nicknamed the “Wizard of Oz” for helping Mr Johnson to win two London mayoral elections, had advised him on September's reshuffle. But after visiting London in the autumn, the 64-year-old is now understood to be back in Australia.

Yet his name remains a buzzword for Tories as they survey the wreckage of yet another government-induced disaster. As one MP gravely put it: “He might have won Bexley and Sidcup but the North Shropshire by-election is looking very dicey. He needs a Lynton if he is going to survive this.”

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