Boris Johnson Makes Last Ditch Attempt To Win Over MPs As Confidence Vote Looms
Boris Johnson has defended his position as party leader at a meeting of Tory MPs, with senior sources insisting the PM is safe even if he wins the confidence vote by only a slim margin.
Addressing backbenchers at a meeting of the 1922 committee this afternoon, Johnson urged MPs to use the confidence vote as a “chance to stop talking about ourselves and start talking exclusively about what we are doing for the people of this country”.
“The people in this room won the biggest electoral victory for the Conservatives for 40 years under my leadership,” he said.
The PM appealed to MPs with hints of tax cuts further down the line, promising "the best is yet to come" from his government. He insisted that he and Chancellor Rishi Sunak would lay out their "plan for growth" in a speech next week.
Conservative MPs will vote this evening whether to remove Boris Johnson as leader after at least 54 sent letters of no confidence to Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee.
The secret ballot will take place between 6pm and 8pm, with results expected to be announced by Sir Graham around 9pm. The PM needs the backing of at least 180 MPs to survive the vote.
Senior Conservative MP Jeremy Hunt, a frontrunner to replace Johnson, led a handful of MPs who have publicly delared they will vote against Johnson. As of 5pm, just an hour before voting is due to commence 127 MPs had declared their support for the prime minister.
Johnson was said to have struck a sombre tone when he addressed Tory MPs this afternoon, and sought to play down an atmosphere of dissent within his party.
“Let us refuse to dance to the tune of the media," he said.
"Let us refuse to gratify our opponents by turning in on ourselves. Let’s show this country that this is a moment to unite and to serve. I will lead you to victory again and the winners will be the people of this country”.
He went on to warn that removing him would open the way for a Labour coalition with the SNP following the next general election.
The potential pairing would be a “disaster in office”, he said, and this would only happen if “we were so foolish as to descend into some pointless fratricidal debate”.
Following the PM’s address, foreign office minister James Cleverly said the speech showed Johnson was in “serious mode”.
“It was light on jokes, heavy on plans and policy. This was the big thing that a lot of people will take away: he’s actually got a plan for what he wants to do next, how we deliver on the promises that we made at the 2019 general election, how we continue delivering through really, really difficult times,” he told journalists.
“Nobody can tell for certain but the tone and mood in that room gives me the feeling that the vast bulk of the party wants us to move on from this row, wants us to focus on what we should be focusing on, which is serving the people who elected us.”
But senior Tory MP Steve Baker, who has stated he will be voting against Johnson later, said he “can’t move past” the findings of the Sue Gray report which suggested that Johnson broke the law.
He said: “What I’ll say is what I’ve said on the record, and what I said to the PM face to face: if he broke the law, if he acquiesced in the law being broken or lied about it, he must go. I’ve said that on the record and I’m afraid that continues to be my view.
“Although this is a very difficult moment, I can’t move past the requirement to have at the very top of government a culture of compliance with rules.”
Many of those backing the PM have already pushed the line that Johnson’s position is safe if he wins by a thin margin, with one senior party source claiming “one vote is a victory”.
“At the end of the day, one side goes home victorious and the other goes home defeated. They are the rules of the game,” they added.
The senior party source went on to say that Johnson was “pumped” ahead of the vote, and felt he would win the support of his party.
“He has been very focused, business-like. He was upbeat in there. It was a very sober speech overall,” they said.
The source also dismissed ongoing concerns over reports of lockdown-breaching parties in Downing Street and Whitehall, which were detailed in Sue Gray’s seismic report last month.
“Is there anyone here who hasn’t got pissed in their lives? Is there anyone here who doesn’t like a glass of wine to decompress?”
The announcement of the confidence vote came as MPs returned from a 10-day recess break over the Jubilee bank holiday weekend. Some MPs reported having to rush back to Westminster to ensure they were on the estate in time for the PM’s afternoon address and the evening vote.
One Conservative source suggested that some MPs could have had their minds changed after a long weekend spent taking feedback from constituents.
They also argued that the recent intervention from “mild mannered” Tory MP Mark Pawse — who came out this morning against Johnson on Monday morning — showed the extent of the danger the PM was in and indicated that no single wing or faction was behind calls for the vote.
Other Tory backbenchers have echoed this suggestion, claiming that the move against the PM was happening “organically” with no single faction leading the charge.
PoliticsHome understands one WhatsApp group of Conservative MPs in support of Johnson has just 34 members, who are working to coordinate Twitter posts and briefings.
Rifts in the party have already been appearing following the announcement of the vote after Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries blamed former health secretary Jeremy Hunt — who has come out against the PM — for poor Covid planning.
Hunt, who is considered a frontrunner to replace Johnson, wrote on Twitter this morning that "today’s decision is change or lose" and he will "be voting for change".
Dorries responded in her own tweet shortly after stating that Hunt’s "pandemic preparation during six years as health secretary was found wanting and inadequate".
"Your duplicity right now in destabilising the party and country to serve your own personal ambition, more so,” she said.
The spat has reportedly angered many backbench MPs, with some suggesting that the Dorries intervention had heavily influenced how they intended to vote in the confidence ballot this evening.
Supporters of the PM are also said to be “furious” over a letter published by former treasury minister Jesse Norman on Monday, in which he wrote that Johnson's claim that he had been vindicated by Sue Gay's report into lockdown parties was "grotesque".
Despite the rifts in the party, Downing Street appeared confident on Monday that Johnson would command the support of MPs.
A spokesperson said the vote this evening was a chance for the government to "draw a line" under weeks of speculation about the prime minister's position.
"Tonight is a chance to end months of speculation and allow the government to draw a line and move on, delivering on the people’s priorities," they said.
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