Boris Johnson’s plans to revive his government this week after days of turmoil inside Downing Street were disrupted by coronavirus on Sunday night when he was told by NHS Test and Trace to self-isolate.
Mr Johnson spoke to major Tory donors over the weekend to reassure them that he would regain a grip and would use this week to relaunch the government, including making a big speech on the “green economy”.
The prime minister told the party’s financial backers that the hoped-for arrival of a Covid-19 vaccine and the conclusion of post-Brexit trade talks — with or without a deal — would pave the way for a Tory rebound in 2021.
But Mr Johnson’s difficult weekend took a turn for the worse when he was forced to self-isolate after meeting a Conservative MP who later developed symptoms of Covid-19.
The prime minister had been trying to repair the political damage from his Downing Street operation falling apart when he was notified of the need to go into isolation.
Number 10 said he would follow the rules but would carry on working from Downing Street. “The PM is well and does not have any symptoms of Covid-19,” a spokesman said.
Mr Johnson had spent the weekend seeking to stabilise his administration after the resignation of Dominic Cummings, his chief adviser, and Lee Cain, his communications chief.
Mr Johnson, who suffered a serious bout of coronavirus in April, met a small group of MPs in Number 10 on Thursday morning, including Lee Anderson, the MP for Ashfield in Nottinghamshire.
Mr Anderson subsequently developed symptoms of Covid-19 and has now tested positive. Ironically, Mr Johnson’s relaunch is expected to involve him spending more time with Tory MPs.
Mr Johnson acted on the advice of NHS Test and Trace that he should self-isolate because of factors such as the length of the meeting, which went on for about 35 minutes.
In spite of the restrictions, which coincide with England’s national lockdown, Mr Johnson’s spokesman said he would continue speaking to the country during his self-isolation period.
He is also expected to discuss what options are available for him to take part remotely in some business in the House of Commons. He is due to take prime minister’s questions on Wednesday.
People who have contracted and recovered from Covid-19 develop antibodies that are believed to confer protection from the disease but there have been a handful of documented instances of individuals who have caught the disease a second time.
On Monday, Mr Johnson will tell Conservative MPs that he is sticking with plans to revive areas of northern England, in spite of the acrimonious resignation of Mr Cummings, a leading advocate of the government’s “levelling-up” agenda.
Mr Cummings and Mr Cain quit after Mr Johnson decided to dispense with his advisers from the Vote Leave campaign. A weekend of toxic media briefings ensued.
Mr Johnson will attempt to draw a line under the turmoil with a major announcement, but not a speech, this week on the green economy, while ministers expect a new year reshuffle to strengthen a misfiring cabinet.
Sajid Javid, former chancellor, is said by colleagues to be in line for a cabinet return. Last month, he sparked speculation that he was eyeing a possible return as foreign secretary when he pre-empted the US presidential election with an article in which he declared: “Britain is better off with Biden.”
One minister said the return of Mr Javid, who clashed with Mr Cummings and resigned as chancellor in February, was “almost a dead cert”. He is a close ally of Carrie Symonds, Mr Johnson’s fiancée.
One party donor said he had received a call from Mr Johnson to explain that his government was entering a “new phase” following the departure of Mr Cummings, which is expected to see a less combative style of government.
“His message was that we’re going into the new year with Brexit finally sorted and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel with Covid thanks to the vaccine,” added the donor.
Another donor said Mr Johnson had reassured him that further coronavirus lockdowns could be avoided. The prime minister has promised a return to a regional system of coronavirus restrictions when the lockdown in England ends on December 2.
The prime minister had on Monday been scheduled to meet members of the newly formed Northern Research Group of Tory MPs, who are pressing the government to deliver on its levelling-up plans.
Mr Johnson’s allies said there would be a new focus on policies to preserve the UK, including proposals for more collaborative relations with the devolved administrations, including Scotland. “Dom didn’t care about Scotland,” said one.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove will press ahead with civil service reforms.
Meanwhile, Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner has written to cabinet secretary Simon Case demanding an urgent inquiry after a report in the Sunday Times about lobbyists working as unpaid government advisers and subsequently passing information to clients.
The Department of Health and Social Care said: “As part of an unprecedented response to this global pandemic we rightly have drawn on the expertise of a number of private sector partners who provided advice and expertise to assist in the government’s vital work.”
It added that all individuals declared any relevant conflict of interest. One of those named in the Sunday Times, George Pascoe-Watson, chair of Portland Communications, said: “I was honoured to be asked to serve the NHS Test and Trace service in my personal capacity as an unpaid adviser.
“I fully declared my role and responsibilities at Portland Communications to the [health department].”
Mr Pascoe-Watson told the Sunday Times that information shared with Portland clients on October 15 and 29 was “in no way connected to the test and trace calls”.