It is worth thinking back to late January when Boris Johnson’s premiership seemed in the greatest danger. As I say in the Times today, back then those Tories trying to remove Johnson were split into two camps. One group thought that they should go hell for leather to get the letters to force a no-confidence ballot. They worried that if they waited, Johnson might escape a police fine. He could then use that as a shield against the criticisms that the Gray report would contain.
The other faction, which contained several former cabinet ministers, argued that the danger in going early was that Johnson could survive the no-confidence ballot. Better, they argued, to wait for the police to fine him and then move at a point when they could be sure he would lose.
Yet, both groups turned out to be wrong. Johnson has been fined but his position does not look in imminent danger. I think there are three reasons for this. First, there are no longer any Covid restrictions in place, nor any prospect of them returning. So, Johnson does not have to ask people to follow the rules that the police have decided he did not. The second is the international situation: the bar for removing a leader in a crisis is higher – especially when the leader is handling that crisis well. The third is the fact that the idea of Johnson being fined has, to Tory MPs if not the public, been normalised by the extensive speculation over whether or not he would be.
This does not mean that Johnson is out of the woods. Things will become more difficult if there are more penalty notices. One breach could be considered unfortunate; anything more becomes increasingly difficult to brush away. In a sign of the uncertainty, one member of the government payroll observes that there is a breaking point for Tory MPs, but he is ‘not sure what it is’.
One MP who knows the parliamentary party best observes that ‘it is all too quiet out there’, pointing to how few backbenchers have come out in support since the fines were issued. This MP says: ‘There’s a lot of shell shock at the moment. There are a lot of people who don’t know what to do.’
The Tory fear is that their voters might know what to do. If the local election results are as bad for the party as recent parliamentary by-elections have been and the Gray report is then scathing about how No. 10 is run, Johnson’s position could become vulnerable again.
Medium term, the biggest danger for Johnson is that the parties scandal fuses with the cost of living crisis. Politics is fractious when people are worse off every month. Voters will rage about the fact that ministers seem insulated from the squeeze they are going through. It could become the most potent expression yet of the idea that there is one rule for them and another for the bulk of the population.
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