Tories Are Bracing For Crisis If Boris Johnson Is Hit With A Fixed Penalty Notice Over Partygate
As MPs prepare to return to Westminster from February recess, the Prime Minister faces what could become a defining moment for his time in Number 10, and potentially the biggest threat to his under-pressure leadership.
“These next few weeks will be an important time for the party,” a former Cabinet minister nervously predicted.
It is likely Boris Johnson has seldom had a second to consider the current state of his relationship with Conservative MPs during this week’s recess, having spent most of it alongside other western leaders trying to dissuade Russian President Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine, as well as responding to the chaos unleashed at home by Storm Eunice.
But Friday marked the deadline for Johnson to return a questionnaire to the Metropolitan police outlining his involvement in a string of gatherings that took place in Downing Street during lockdown, and the subsequent report into their findings could reignite restlessness among Conservative MPs and put his leadership in danger once again.
Numerous Tories who PoliticsHome spoke to this week – across various factions of the party – agreed that if the Met issues Johnson with a Fixed Penalty Notice (FPN) for his role in the rule-breaching gatherings, enough would feel compelled to submit letters to trigger a vote of no confidence in him. And even if he swerves a FPN, if he is found to have lied to parliament, he’ll be in highly dangerous territory.
“His rhetoric is of someone who intends to tough it out, but if he’s found to have been in breach of his own law, he would be in a very difficult position,” said the same former Secretary of State.
“There’ll be a number of people who go to him and say: ‘Are you really going to do this?’.”
Some of Johnson’s staunchest allies are adamant that even a FPN, which Workington MP Mark Jenkinson insists are not “convictions or proof of guilt”, wouldn’t spell the end for the Prime Minister. Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries recently told the BBC that only if Johnson “kicked a dog” would she “probably” withdraw support for him.
But one senior Tory MP, who has been steadfast in their support of the embattled Prime Minister up to now, said Johnson being handed a FPN would for the first time force them to think about ousting him, and that many like-minded colleagues would be left with no choice but to do the same.
“A lot of MPs would want to consider the implications of that fairly carefully,” they said. “It’s the sort of thing that I would talk to my local Tory association about.”
One senior moderate Tory MP said that even if a legal technicality or two helps Johnson avert a FPN, it “really would not be a good look for the PM” in the eyes of the general public.
Writing in The Evening Standard this week, journalist Tom Newton-Dunn said Johnson’s lawyers planned to argue to Met investigators that while he may have consumed wine at the Downing Street lockdown parties, drinking alcohol at work events was not prohibited by the rules at the time, and that he didn’t stay long enough at the infamous events to be classed as a party-goer anyway.
“It’s the most dog ate my homework excuse I’ve heard,” the unimpressed moderate, who has not yet submitted a letter of no confidence to 1922 Committee Chair Graham Brady, told PoliticsHome.
“Imagine if I said: ‘Sorry officer, I was only breaking the speed limit for ten minutes’.”
The Prime Minister's close allies are confident that he will avoid a FPN, the FT reported this week, and there is a widespread belief among MPs that the Met is unlikely to dish one out to the Prime Minister.
"I’m not sure the Met wants to be in the business of choosing the next PM," one MP elected in 2019 told PoliticsHome. "That shouldn’t preclude them from doing their job properly, but it’d be a very bold move”.
A number of Conservative MPs who have spent this week's recess in their constituencies also claim that public anger over 'partygate' has started to dissipate.
“The steam has gone out of the initial anger that we had from constituents. I’ve been here so often before: at first you have the outrage, and then the caravan moves on," said one veteran Tory.
Another told PoliticsHome "fatigue is starting to set in, people want to get on with their lives" and added that they believed this was part of Johnson's strategy. "He’ll be counting on that when the story rears its head once more with the Met report people will say ‘oh no, not that again’,” they added.
There is also a willingness among most Tory MPs to give Johnson's recently overhauled top team – which includes Chief of Staff Stephen Barclay, Chief Whip Chris Heaton-Harris, and Director of Communications Guto Harri – a chance to show that they can help turn his operation around.
“The party’s in the mood of giving people a chance,” said a critical former Cabinet minister.
The consensus among Tory MPs is if Johnson does manage to avoid a FPN from the Met, then he will hang on until the 5 May local elections, when the party will get their first concrete sign of whether he is still the electoral juggernaut which his supporters say is his strongest asset.
However, the Met's imminent findings may well lead Conservative MPs to stage a much earlier intervention.
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