Boris Johnson’s half-apology on Wednesday, for accidentally attending a
party work event in his own garden, was aimed at buying him some time. But it is becoming increasingly clear that his party is running out of patience.
Some backbenchers welcomed Johnson’s belated acknowledgment that he should have broken up the booze-fuelled gathering attended by up to 40 staff in the Downing Street garden on 20 May 2020, and suggested he had won himself the right to await civil servant Sue Gray’s inquiry findings.
As one MP put it: “We want the Sue Gray report – it’s only the decent thing to let her actually do it. We shouldn’t pull the trigger on the guilty verdict until we’ve actually seen the report.”
A junior minister agreed, saying Johnson had effectively “bet the farm” on the Gray report. “He’s done enough to win himself another week or two. If Gray doesn’t directly pin the blame on him, it will be framed by No 10 as exoneration,” they said.
However, many others, publicly and privately, warned that even before Gray sets out the details of lockdown social events in black and white, Johnson’s authority is draining away.
They must now decide whether the damage being done to the Conservative brand is so great that forcing a destabilising no confidence vote now is preferable to allowing him to continue in office.
“Tory MPs will be thinking: ‘Before, he was a helium balloon that was lifting the party. Now, he’s an anchor dragging us down,’” said one senior Conservative.
The Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross became the first MP to break cover and call for Johnson to go, saying his position was “untenable” after he conceded attending the “bring your own booze” party during lockdown.
Ross, who is also an MSP, and his Scottish colleagues have a clear political self-interest in distancing themselves from Johnson, who is anything but popular in Scotland.
But MPs with English constituencies also publicly ridiculed Johnson’s insistence that he believed the bash described by his own principal private secretary as “socially distanced drinks” was a “work event”.
William Wragg, who sits on the executive of the powerful backbench 1922 Committee, said he and colleagues were “frankly worn out from defending what is invariably indefensible”.
Two MPs, including Ross, told the Guardian they had been moved to fire off letters to 1922 Committee chair, Sir Graham Brady, demanding a no-confidence vote which, if Johnson lost, would mark the end of his turbulent premiership.
Another said there were “cliques” of MPs gathering, discussing whether to send in a batch of letters, pushing the number closer to the threshold of 54 to trigger a vote.
Some fear the drip, drip of revelations about parties is only likely to continue in the coming weeks, making it all but impossible for Johnson to get on with governing.
As well as judging whether he should remain prime minister, however, they must also consider the alternatives – and whether they would be capable of restoring Tory fortunes in the polls.
It is unclear to say the least whether frontrunners Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak could bind together Johnson’s winning “get Brexit done” coalition of voters in northern “red wall” seats, and more traditional Tories.
They may also be reluctant to inherit the crown ahead of what is likely to be a rocky period, with inflation running above 5%, energy bills rocketing and the Tories primed to lose a swath of seats in May’s local council elections. That may stay the hand of some of their supporters in penning letters to Brady.
Some cabinet ministers loyally tweeted their support on Wednesday – but their backing appeared almost as carefully worded as Johnson’s Commons statement, with Sajid Javid, for example, saying Johnson was right to apologise, and “I completely understand why people feel let down”.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s plan now appears to be to await the Gray inquiry report in the hope it gives him just enough wriggle-room to continue to claim he was not aware that Covid guidance was being broken.
With some officials – including his principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, the party invitation-sender, and director of communications, Jack Doyle – likely to have to go, he could then announce the major shake-up of his team MPs have been calling for since before Christmas.
“Why throw bodies overboard when you can use them as human shields?” said one senior Tory.
As the Omicron wave hopefully wanes, Johnson could then attempt the last resort of every embattled prime minister – a relaunch, shifting the narrative to what he claims is his government’s mission of “levelling up”.
But as a dramatic day in Westminster drew to a close, it was very unclear whether his own backbenchers are willing to give him that opportunity.