Katy Balls

Is Boris Johnson out of the woods?

Is Boris Johnson out of the woods?
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As Downing Street aides prepare to publish Sue Gray's report later today, there is a growing sense amongst Boris Johnson's allies that they are turning a corner after a month of torrid headlines. The government is now trying to move attention to Levelling Up and the situation in Ukraine; the fact that the report into partygate will be redacted when it comes to the most serious suspected breaches of Covid guidelines will help them shift the focus. It means that much of the sting will be taken out of the report. No. 10 plans to use any breathing space as a result to convince MPs the government is focussing on getting on with the day job.

Boris Johnson is expected to U-turn on mandatory jabs for NHS staff – a policy loathed by many Tory MPs. The Prime Minister has also pledged a Brexit Freedoms Bill to cut EU red tape to mark the two-year anniversary of the UK leaving the EU. As for his domestic agenda, this week the Levelling Up white paper is due to be published. The 400-page document is meant to finally flesh out what Levelling Up means and reassure MPs in swing seats in the red wall. However, those who have been invited to see the document tell Coffee House that anyone expecting big policy announcements could be disappointed.

So with only a partial report coming out this week, is Johnson out of the woods? As the weeks have gone on, MPs have been calmed slightly by the fact the issue has been mentioned less regularly when they are back in their constituencies. What's more, as I reported last week, the 'Save Johnson' operation of old time allies of Johnson organising Tory supporters in the Commons has had some success. Increasingly MPs see the conclusion of the police investigation and the local elections in May as the crunch points for action rather than the report this week. Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen has penned a supportive article warning MPs: 

'We Tories will surrender the north if we lose Johnson'.

However, there are plenty of Tory MPs who don't see this as the end of the matter. 'With Barnard Caste there was rage, with this most people are too tired of the whole thing to get angry – that doesn't mean they'll still vote for us,' says a 2019 MP. 

It's also very hard to tell how loyal the people telling Johnson's supporters they are committed to the Prime Minister really are: 'They (Johnson's shadow whipping operation) have overcorrected by being so heavy handed – if you demand loyalty everyone just says 'Yes, great, of course I support him'. It doesn't mean they mean it,' says a 2017 MP. 

One MP describes the Commons tearoom as 'ghastly' – filled with hardcore Boris Johnson supporters and long time Boris Johnson haters.

What's more, the Tory MPs backing Johnson are expecting big changes both in terms of the No. 10 operation and the direction of the government in return for their support of the Prime Minister. The announcement over the weekend that the National Insurance rise will go ahead – despite MPs calling for it to be scrapped – has already led to upset. One of the candidates MPs on the right of the party have been pushing for Chief of Staff is Johnson's former Brexit negotiator Sir David Frost. However, he has ruled himself out this morning (after telling Andrew Neil in his Channel 4 documentary 'never say never') while the NI rise is in place. Delivering on the assurances and promises Johnson has given to MPs in recent weeks could be the hardest part yet. 

Written byKaty Balls

Katy Balls is The Spectator's deputy political editor.

Topics in this articlePolitics