Boris Johnson has gone into the weekend with his fate in the hands of Tory MPs. Since the Prime Minister apologised in the Commons chamber for attending a drinks party in the Downing Street garden during lockdown, there has been a concerted effort to shore up his position.
Members of the Cabinet have come out to defend him – even if the comments have been lukewarm at best – and Boris Johnson has started to frequent the MPs’ tearoom. As of Thursday, there was increased optimism that Sue Gray’s report into alleged Downing Street parties would be something Johnson could weather – with speculation building that he would then reshuffle his Downing Street team and attempt a reset to put the whole saga behind him. The thinking went that if Johnson could get to the local elections – where expectations are already pretty low – and achieve an okay result, talk of his departure would die down.
Only there are early signs that this scenario might be harder to achieve. New claims which emerged in the Telegraph of two No. 10 parties held the night before Prince Philip's funeral – at a time when Covid restrictions banned indoor mixing – have only added to MPs’ anger. While the Prime Minister himself attended neither event, the reaction among Tories is one of frustration – the drip drip nature of these stories is one of the main concerns in the parliamentary party. It raises the question: who needs to go in order to make the stories stop?
The fact that Johnson's former aide Dominic Cummings has been driving much of partygate – writing about it on his Substack and being the first to mention the drinks party Johnson attended on May 20 – is a source of frustration too. Senior Tories believe it didn’t have to be this way. ‘There was an opportunity to leave things on OK terms with Dom but instead both sides blew it up,’ says one old hand. ‘Getting into a fight with someone who knows so much was always a mad idea.’
As I report in this week's Spectator, increasingly Johnson's departure is being discussed as a matter of when not if. ‘A lot of my colleagues are saying we shouldn’t wait until the local elections to move,’ says one whip. ‘And that we should instead change our leader now, in order to change the result of those elections.’
'Anyone sensible in the party knows that he will not lead us into the next election,' says a senior party source. The problem for Johnson is that the current row is one that is very much to do with his own brand. 'It's not about whether you are a Johnson supporter or not, it's about whether you really think he can bounce back and it looks near impossible,' says a government aide. Even outwardly supportive cabinet ministers are sceptical in private of whether Johnson can make it past the May local elections.
There is still scepticism among senior Tories that there will be enough letters to trigger a confidence vote in the next few weeks. Yet Johnson will find himself under more pressure soon after MPs return from a weekend in their constituencies where they will get a sense of how much this is – or isn’t – cutting through. The polls aren't exactly encouraging for Johnson – with Labour currently enjoying a ten-point lead.
A sign of trouble ahead comes from the Sutton Coldfield Conservative Association which has unanimously passed a motion calling on Johnson to stand down. The constituency is represented by Andrew Mitchell and has a Conservative majority of nearly 20,000. It's for the reasons above that numerous ministers, MPs and government aides believe a leadership election this year is more likely than not.