Boris Johnson has insisted his Government has not been blown off course by coronavirus but said that “sometimes it is necessary” to change direction in “response to the facts as they change”.
The Prime Minister’s comments come after he presided over a series of U-turns on policy which have angered Conservative MPs, with one describing events as a “megadisaster from one day to the next”.
Chairing his first Cabinet meeting after the summer parliamentary recess, Mr Johnson told ministers that in the last few months they have been “sailing into the teeth of a gale, no question”.
“And I am no great nautical expert, but sometimes it is necessary to tack here and there in response to the facts as they change, in response to the wind’s change, but we have been going steadily in the direction, in the course we set out, and we have not been blown off that course.”
He said there would still be “some turbulence ahead” and that things would be “difficult” on the economic front, while the need remained to “get this disease absolutely out of our systems”.
“But I am absolutely confident that if we continue in the way that we have that there will be calmer days, brighter days and calmer seas ahead of us, so thank you all very much for everything that you have done.”
Many Tory backbenchers are frustrated by the Government’s handling of the crisis, with one senior Conservative MP telling the PA news agency his colleagues are “tired of the U-turns”.
“There’s that element of calamity – and frankly there are people from the Red Wall seats who are getting jittery. But not only Red Wall seats, but other people who haven’t got marginal seats like that,” he said.
“We’d like to be in a Government that has the impression of being competent, rather than lurching from one issue to another and then after a short time doing a U-turn.”
The backbencher said MPs were left with “egg on their face” each time they defended Government policy to constituents, and then had to reverse their stance.
The Conservatives won a majority of 80 seats at last year’s general election, turning many traditional Labour constituencies – which formed the so-called Red Wall – blue.
Some MPs are concerned that these newly won seats could be returned to Labour at the next election if the Government performs poorly.
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, treasurer of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, said the panel’s executives expect to meet Mr Johnson in the “near future” to relay the concerns of backbenchers.
He told PA: “I think there is a lot of sympathy (among Conservative MPs) for the fact it has been unprecedented, but then I think we mustn’t make other own goals.
“There are other issues like planning which are now beginning to bubble to the surface… devolution of local authorities is another area that is going to surface in the autumn. We must be very careful with what issues we bring up not to create unnecessary controversy.
“We may have a big majority but that still doesn’t mean to say that we shouldn’t be as competent as possible as a Government.”
Mr Johnson told Cabinet: “We will continue to get this country moving and to defeat the virus, but at the same time we are getting on as you all know with delivering on our promises and we haven’t stopped, like the teachers who’ve been hard at work keeping their schools going,
“This Government has been getting on with delivering 40 more hospitals, and 20,000 more police officers, 50,000 more nurses, you know what we are doing and we are getting on with it.
“And from this crisis we will build back better in this country and we will build back faster, and we will build back greener.”