Two Paths Emerge For A Beleaguered Boris Johnson As He Faces His Toughest Week Yet
As Westminster awaits the publication of the much anticipated Sue Gray report into alleged Downing Street parties, two paths are emerging for Boris Johnson and the beleaguered Tory party.
MPs, parliamentary staffers and government sources who spoke to PoliticsHome over the weekend have said if the Prime Minister is found to have deliberately lied to Parliament and the public over a string of reported gatherings at Downing Street during lockdown he must immediately resign as a matter of honour, and a leadership race will take place this Spring.
Any other outcome could allow him to "hold on" until the next election senior Tory MPs believe, but only if he clears out half a dozen high profile Number 10 staff, talks to his backbenchers more about policy, and drops the "pyrotechnic" style of government and demonstrates competence.
“If it’s deliberate lying and facts emerge that [Johnson] would have known about, and he has flatly said the opposite knowingly, that’s a problem,” a former Cabinet minister told PoliticsHome.
“Short of that I think he lives to fight another day."
Civil servant Sue Gray, who is second permanent secretary at the Department for Levelling Up, is expected to release conclusions of her investigation into sixteen potentially Covid-rule breaking parties in Downing Street this week.
Among those who have given written evidence is former adviser Dominic Cummings on Monday who claims Johnson was warned not to attend a party on May 20 2020 in Number 10's garden. Gray's remit is also said to have widened to include visits by Tory special advisers to the Downing Street flat where Johnson lives with his wife Carrie, according to the Sunday Times. The result of the much anticipated inquiry will follow another torrid week for the Prime Minister, which saw the defection of Christian Wakeford to the Labour Party, allegations of blackmail and threats by the Tory whips to thier own MPs.
On Sunday, former minister Nus Ghani alleged that she had been sacked from her post because her Muslim religion had made colleagues feel uncomfortable, which has triggered a government inquiry. Chief whip Mark Spencer took the unusual move of publicly denying Ghani's claims as false and defamatory on Saturday night.
The former cabinet minister said that while the past week had been intensely fevered, especially among the 2019 intake of Tory MPs, who have “not been steady under fire”, many now expect to see a major shift in Johnson's leadership if he manages to stay in office.
They referenced Monty Python's Life of Brian in describing how Johnson's future as Prime Minister could now play out: "He’s no longer the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy", and believed that the era of "super-Boris" was now over.
"He will have to play by the same rules as any other politician, which is frankly, no amount of fleetness of foot and pyrotechnics is going to get round the fact you’ve got to govern competently," they explained.
They said if the Gray report shows he inadvertently lied by being given poor information and believed he was acting in good faith, then that could be excusable. In this instance, MPs are still expecting to see a significant shake-up of staff in Number 10.
Among the staff widely reported to be facing the axe is Martin Reynolds, the Prime Minister’s Principle Private Secretary. An email leaked to ITV News showed Reynolds invite 100 staff to "socially distanced" drinks in the Downing Street garden during lockdown, and encouraged them to "bring your own booze".
“[Getting rid of staff] is absolutely essential I’m afraid. Ultimately at this level of government it’s not about [friendship] it’s about hard truths and governing well," the senior Tory MP said.
A government source said Cabinet ministers are also expecting a Number 10 staff clear-out as part of their guarantee of on-going support for Johnson.
“If he doesn’t sort out Number 10 there will be people in Cabinet who will be very angry. People have been asking 'who’s been briefing the PM?'," the source said.
Last week’s interview with Sky News' Beth Rigby was a low moment for Johnson, the source suggested, leaving MPs scratching their heads as to why he said “nobody told me” that a gathering on 20 May 2020 could be in breach of Covid-rules.It is also understood some of the lines Conservatives have been given by Number 10 staff to use if they’re questioned about the “partygate scandal” or the Prime Minister’s conduct, most notably, "wait for the Sue Gray report’", have been met with scepticism, and concern that they aren’t expansive enough.
One idea to help Johnson get back on track, which is said to have been floated by Tory MPs and party staff over the last week, is for him to hire a new chief of staff who is an MP or ex-MP and really understands the relationship with Cabinet and Parliament.
“They need to pull in a well rounded figure, a current or ex-MP, understands Cabinet, but they need to be elected so they’ve got skin in the game,” the government source said.
The defection of Wakeford to the Labour Party is said to have put the brakes on Conservative MPs sending in letters of no confidence to the chair of the 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady MP. If he receives 53 letters that triggers a vote of no confidence, and 180 Tory MPs would have to vote against Johnson for him to be dropped as leader of the Conservatives.
There has been some anger among older Conservatives about the 2019 intake being too knee-jerk and not grateful enough that Johnson’s broad appeal among voters is likely to have contributed to them winning their seats at the last election.The party descended into bitter infighting over reports the “pork pie plotters” – who got their name for allegedly meeting in the office of the MP for Rutland and Melton, Alicia Kearns – were keen to call on Johnson to resign.
This sparked an immediate backlash from older members of the party for the chaos it would cause.
“As I’ve said to younger colleagues, if you start this in train you not only have a four month leadership election, a new leader, a new government, we’ve lost six months of governing and then the pressure will be on for an early election," one senior Tory said. "Is that what you want?"
Another senior Tory MP believed it was clear that the pork pie plotters have now relented. "Nobody was willing to front up," they explained.
"Instead, since Wednesday, they have spent time busily briefing 'it wasn't me guv'. All they have done is embarrassed themselves and the party. Time they all just back off and keep quiet."One Conservative insider said that the mood has become more subdued than it was last week.
“I don’t doubt this week will be tough, but in my opinion I do think Boris could be okay despite the Sue Gray report provided we seriously crack on delivering and getting on with the job," they said.
“Even if the rebellion did reach the threshold for a vote of no confidence in the Parliamentary Party, I just cannot see at this stage 50% of Conservative MPs voting him out.
“[If they can’t get the letters] it seems insane to me that they could find 179 willing to publicly put their name to ousting him.”
But despite the view that Johnson can "hang on", there is still palpable fury among the party, and the wider public with extremely poor polling for Johnson’s government. Former Brexit Secretary David Davis dramatically told Johnson to go at Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons last week, and six Tory backbenchers have publicly called for the Prime Minister to quit, with another reported by Sunday Times to have handed in a letter of no confidence.
Questioned about whether the "partygate" scandal was paralysing government, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, said he accepted the seriousness of the allegations and it is right that they are investigated.
He said the vaccine rollout and measures to open up the economy, show that "not withstanding all of these other issues, significant though they are," he believed Johnson has recently made the right calls through the pandemic.
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