Dominic Raab, the deputy prime minister, has defended Boris Johnson against accusations that he is losing his grip, saying he has a “great team” around him.
The justice secretary, who is second in command of the government, said Johnson’s faltering speech to the CBI on Monday, during which he lost his place and made a long tangent on Peppa Pig, was an example of him being “ebullient”.
Despite reports of a rift between No 10 and the Treasury, backbench discontent and a small number of MPs submitting letters of no confidence, Raab said the prime minister was “on great form”.
He told BBC Breakfast: “The reality is people speak about speeches in the Westminster village, the gossip and all the rest of it.
“It’s the job of Westminster commentators to pick up on one anonymous source from wherever they found it to criticise the government of the day; that’s fine.”
He said the prime minister 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.”
Asked on Times Radio whether the prime minister was losing his grip, Raab said he was not, adding that Johnson had a “great team” around him including the cabinet.
The prime minister has undergone a tumultuous three weeks marred by repeated backbench revolts.
There are also understood to be tensions between No 10 and No 11, with Rishi Sunak’s department thought to be concerned about the prime minister’s tendency to over-promise and the fumbled timing of decisions.
The announcement of the integrated rail plan, originally scheduled for earlier in the autumn but delayed until last week, was among poorly executed announcements, Treasury sources believe. After a series of leaks, the final plan was greeted with fury – including by many Tory MPs – after it fell short of what had been promised by Boris Johnson.
Some MPs are also blaming Johnson’s inveterate boosterism for the dashed expectations that led to a string of northern newspaper front pages condemning the plans.
Details of the social care cap were also delayed until last week, months after the broader package was announced, focusing anger on the disproportionate impact on lower-income households. Scores of Conservative backbenchers voted against the plans or stayed away on Monday, reducing Johnson’s majority to 26.
Some privately voiced growing concerns about Johnson’s competence before the vote and after a rambling speech to business leaders. On Tuesday, Johnson’s official spokesperson was forced to insist that “the prime minister is well” after the speech to the CBI in which he lost his place and digressed to praise Peppa Pig World.
But many Tory MPs blame Sunak, who is understood to have had dinner with the prime minister on Sunday, for forcing the government to pare back its investment plans to save money.
On Tuesday, some Conservative MPs urged Johnson to bring in a political heavy-hitter to help rectify the situation and bring an end to what are regarded as unforced errors by Downing Street. “He’s absolutely got to do something,” said a former minister. “All of us have weaknesses; it’s incumbent on us to put the right people in place to correct for those weaknesses.”
A suggestion being mooted on Whitehall – including in the Treasury – is that Ben Gascoigne, Johnson’s former political secretary who was recently brought back in as deputy chief of staff, could help take more of a strategic oversight role.
Rumours have also resurfaced that Johnson’s chief of staff, Dan Rosenfield, could depart – though he was closely involved in many recent decisions, including the prime minister’s ruthless September reshuffle. Rosenfield regards his role as building a machine to allow Johnson to govern effectively, though some Johnson allies believe he lacks political nous.
Asked about Johnson’s CBI speech, his spokesperson said on Tuesday: “The prime minister briefly lost his place in the speech. He’s given hundreds of speeches. I don’t think it’s unusual for people, on rare occasions, to lose their place in space.”
Asked about a potential shake-up in the No 10 team, a source said: “Downing Street is focused on delivering for the public and the team is united around that goal.”