Increasingly, Boris Johnson is much more comfortable on the world stage than he is at Westminster.
After eight days that have seen the Prime Minister fly to summits in Kigali, Bavaria and Madrid, insiders say he feels a surefootedness on foreign affairs.
They say the confidence is exemplified by his response to the Ukraine crisis. “The defense establishment was telling him to be careful about provoking Putin and he just said, ‘f*ck that shit’,” a source said.
The reason the UK is now so much more popular in Kyiv than are France or Germany is because of the Government’s aggressive approach, they added: “It’s ultimately about the cojones factor.”
But that will not help him shore up support in Westminster. One MP from the 2019 intake said this week that the relationship between the newest Tory MPs and No 10 was “poor”, partly because the Government had failed to offer up retail policies that can be sold on the doorstep and help these “red wall” Conservatives keep their seats: “They don’t understand an intake very closely connected to their patches, and the one-term focus for some is difficult for them to understand.”
Mr Johnson has already tried reshuffling his back office, tightening up his inner circle after complaining that his daily morning meeting had ended up with so many people that he didn’t recognize them all.
Some of the team feel this is an unfinished task, since the Prime Minister has failed to reverse the image created for him by former allies – such as Dominic Cummings – as a highly divisive culture warrior. One insider said: “He’s gone from being this liberal unifier to some sort of racist, misogynistic monster and that is just not him.”
Another option is to start reshuffling the Cabinet, an option mooted within Whitehall for several months but not yet acted on. No 10 has ruled out a reshuffle over the summer recess – but there will at least be a minor tweak of the ministerial team after the resignations of Mr Dowden after the by-elections, and Deputy Chief Whip Chris Pincher over yet another sleaze scandal.
Any changes would have to either come in the next three weeks, or be delayed until the autumn when the Commons’ privileges committee probe into “Partygate” will inevitably raise fresh questions about Mr Johnson’s future. Sacking any Cabinet big beasts would risk creating dangerous new enemies.
More important than any personnel changes will be whether or not the Government can convince voters it has a workable plan to bring down inflation and boost the economy. The Prime Minister is preparing a joint speech with Rishi Sunak to be delivered this month, seen by insiders as a crucial moment in repairing Mr Johnson’s bruised reputation with his own party.
The men will emphasize the need for departments to work closely together on economic strategy – for example, by negotiating with businesses such as whiskey exporters, to make sure they are ready to exploit any potential benefits from the forthcoming Indian trade deal.
Mr Johnson began his unprecedented fortnight of foreign travel in less than ideal circumstances. Last Monday morning, he had an operation on his sinuses which forced him to formally hand over power to Dominic Raab, the Deputy Prime Minister, as he recovered from general anaesthetic.
Officials were baffled to see him appear back in the Downing Street office, “suited and booted”, within just a few hours. For a Prime Minister who has been open about his struggles with yo-yo dieting, he showed a stamina that he would repeatedly need to draw on during a marathon eight day trip to Rwanda, Germany and Spain for meetings of the Commonwealth, G7 and NATO .
As he thrown in to Kigali, Mr Johnson faced a political backdrop of strikes seizing up the country and two looming by-elections. Aides traveling with him were defiant, however – one insisted: “I’ve got a few years left in this job.”
The great advantage of being busy with summitry, according to No 10 officials, is that the Prime Minister did not have time to dwell on his troubles back in Westminster. But on the morning of the double by-election defeat, he had no choice: Mr Johnson held phone calls with a number of “Cabinet mates”, including Rishi Sunak in a sign the relationship between the two men may now be thawing, to try and ensure that no one would follow Oliver Dowden in resigning and challenging his authority.
He set off a new round of headlines in Rwanda by telling reporters he was already thinking about a third term in power, which would take him into the mid-2030s. Aides attempted to pass it off as a “joke”, but the comments came under repeated questioning and enraged Conservative MPs back home.
Apparently realizing his mistake, Mr Johnson refused to address any further questions about his own future – even as he admitted to some nostalgia for his own days in journalism, when he could pump out political speculation with impunity.
During one of his many flights from conference hall to conference hall, the Prime Minister told the press pack: “I’ve realized where I’ve been going wrong with all this. I’ve got to recognize that years and years ago, I used to do the kind of jobs that you all do now, and it was a great, great life and a great privilege, and what you are able to do is offer opinion, commentary, analysis, predictions about politics, about individuals and so on. I think I’ve got to recognize I’m no longer a member of that sacred guild. It would be a demarcation dispute for me to cross over and start talking about politics.”
Once again, the Prime Minister has sought to escape his turbulent domestic politics by hobnobbing with other leaders.
He held his first meeting with Anthony Albanese, Australia’s new left-wing Prime Minister, who wrong-footed him by launching into expletive-riddled rants – his predecessor Scott Morrison had “f*cked it on climate”, he said – and lavished praise on the green credentials of Margaret Thatcher.
At the G7 in Bavaria, Mr Johnson struck up a friendship with Emmanuel Macron after years of bickering with the French leader. They both indulged in a late-night dram of Bavarian whiskey at the Schloss, but a source claimed that the Prime Minister did not stay up to the early hours because – ironically – “he’s not a party animal”.
The Anglo-French rivalry was rekindled in the form of a race to get from Germany to Spain: Mr Macron’s fleet of three planes managed to leave Munich later and arrive in Madrid earlier than Mr Johnson’s single charter jet, which No 10 officials said was because the British plane traveled at a slower speed to preserve fuel and help the environment.
It was in Spain where domestic politics again intruded into the Prime Minister’s globetrotting, as Defense Secretary Ben Wallace and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss joined Mr Johnson and immediately pressured him by demanding a substantial rise in military spending.
Both are seen as potential future leaders if the incumbent is toppled – but allies insist that is not why they spoke out.
Mr Wallace is unlikely to face a slap on the wrists from No 10 because Mr Johnson admires his outspoken style, according to an insider: “Ben can get away with a lot because he speaks in human, he’s not just wooden repeating lines.”
Ms Truss finds it “frustrating” that her policy interventions are so often seen through the framing of a potential leadership contest, an ally told Iadding: “Higher defense spending is totally in line and consistent with her vision for UK foreign policy and the strategy she’s pushing.”
With an increasingly outspoken Cabinet and no sign of improvement in the polls, the Prime Minister is likely to find recovery at home far more trying than glamor abroad.