Will Boris Johnson still be Prime Minister in a year’s time? It’s the question that haunts Johnson’s closest allies. After news broke on Monday evening of another lockdown event in the form of a birthday celebration in Downing Street when social gatherings indoors were banned, Johnson is once again on the backfoot. With MPs frustrated by the damaging drip-drip nature of the leaks, Johnson doesn’t just need to survive Sue Gray’s report into partygate, he also needs to show his party he can change.
When the latest allegations emerged, Johnson loyalists such as Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries were quick out the blocks to say this event simply amounted to cake in the office (even if the Prime Minister’s interior designer Lulu Lytle also managed to drop by) and therefore is less serious than the other allegations. In the wider parliamentary party, however, it has soured the mood further. Those who already want Johnson out take it as further evidence he should go while MPs on the fence are annoyed by the simple fact there is another allegation they have to fend off. ‘When will it end?’ was one minister’s response.
Given Gray already knew of the event, it is not expected to delay her report into parties which is still expected this week. Once that report is out, Johnson’s supporters are braced for the possibility that the 54 letters threshold could be reached and that a confidence vote would follow quickly after. Despite the latest allegations, there is cautious optimism among Johnson’s team. They say that anger among constituents over partygate appears to be cooling slightly — with other issues such as cost of living coming up.
What’s more, the wider operation to save Johnson is getting up and running. A shadow whipping operation by Johnson’s allies — including Nigel Adams, Grant Shapps, Andrew Griffith and Connor Burns — has been set up. Shapps has brought back the spreadsheet system he used to keep track of Johnson’s supporters in the leadership campaign. Shapps was able to predict the exact number of Johnson supporters in that 2019 race.
On Monday, around 70 supportive MPs met remotely to discuss Johnson’s position with former whip Chris Pincher, who argued that ousting Johnson could lead to a snap election given the Prime Minister’s successor would need their own mandate in order to lead successfully. Another figure involved in the save Johnson operation says that over 100 MPs want to actively help shore up support.
Where there is greatest concern is the part that comes after a confidence vote. Not only could Johnson find himself in a significantly weaker position even if he wins it, he will also need to show he is changing how he operates. After the report comes out, MPs expect Johnson to shake up his No. 10 team. They want that to go further than civil servants and extend to his political operation.
Since entering 10 Downing Street, Johnson has struggled to find a set up that works for him: Vote Leave took too much control for his liking and since the departure of Dominic Cummings it has been unclear which No. 10 aides are in charge. MPs complain that the current advisers won’t tell the Prime Minister when he is making a bad decision. As I reported last week, there’s talk of Tory election guru Lynton Crosby taking a No. 10 role or a figure like David Canzini, an ally of Crosby, coming in to restore discipline.
Those who could face the axe include his principal private secretary Martin Reynolds and chief of staff Dan Rosenfield. Johnson is also under pressure to recharge the Whip’s Office and work to bring those MPs currently isolated back into the fold. ‘What the Prime Minister thinks counts as a significant change could be different to what the party thinks,’ says one senior Tory.
Johnson is alleged to have once told Dominic Cummings that he prefers a chaotic office to one in which a specific adviser or faction has too much control: ‘The chaos means everyone will look to me as the man in charge.’ This is why, for Johnson’s biggest supporters, getting him through a confidence vote is just the first step in a much wider effort to shore up Downing Street.
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