Last night there was a sense among parts of the media that Boris Johnson’s premiership might yet survive after a dramatic day in the House of Commons. The defection to Labour of Christian Wakeford, the Bury South MP, was supposed to have led Tories to “close ranks” around the Prime Minister, while David Davis’ abrupt and unaccompanied attack on Johnson at the end of yesterday’s PMQs had not proved fatal.
But the Tory MPs I spoke to in Westminster last night conveyed to me a very different mood. They were not preoccupied by the four-dimensional chess of the day’s events and how the loss of a Conservative MP – the first Tory defection to Labour for 15 years – was somehow a gain for the Prime Minister. Instead, the impression I came away with was that a vote of no-confidence in Johnson is imminent. The only reason it has not yet happened is that many MPs, including a number of ministers, are waiting for the cover of Sue Gray’s report.
There are two fundamental facts that make a no-confidence vote likely. One is a sense of genuine moral outrage at the conduct of Johnson and his staff. The second is the suddenly dire state of the party’s electoral prospects. Based on the current polls, one in three Tory MPs will lose their seats at the next election.
Once Gray’s report is released, MPs believe that many of their colleagues will, like Davis, call for the Prime Minister to go. Waiting for Gray’s report gives MPs a basis on which to act once the damning facts of Johnson’s likely lockdown breach have been established. As one of the MPs noted, many of the reactions offered last week by cabinet ministers (such as Rishi Sunak’s) were scarcely supportive of Johnson at all. “Very few of them went further than: I’m pleased that the Prime Minister apologised and it’s right that we wait for Sue Gray.”
The plot to oust Johnson has not been foiled – it has only just begun. Wakeford’s defection and Davis’ interjection are only the opening salvos of a coming battle. And Gray’s report, due next week, will be meaningful not only for what it contains but for what its publication means for Tory MPs: they will no longer be able to delay their verdict on Johnson. (In an interview with the BBC’s Nick Robinson this morning, Steve Baker – a leading backbench architect of Brexit – intimated that he would be among those to withdraw support from Johnson after Gray’s report. As he put it, it “looks like checkmate” for the Prime Minister.)
When a no-confidence vote is triggered – as well-sourced MPs expect to happen after Gray’s report – there will be a battle over what the vote means. Is it a vote on whether Johnson should simply survive the year or over whether he will lead the Tories thereafter? “It seems to me the choice facing colleagues is this,” one MP put it to me, “do you want him to fight the next election? That’s what we’re really deciding. Because if you do, you own everything that’s happened, and you’re going to have to defend it. You also own everything that we don’t know yet that’s going to come out. And there will,” the MP suggests, “be more to come, not just on Covid [breaches].”
This is one of Johnson’s biggest problems. He has so far been unwilling or unable to assure his MPs that there are no more revelations to come. This was part of what provoked Douglas Ross – the Scottish Tory leader – to move against Johnson last week. Ross spoke with Johnson the day before stories broke of No 10 staff holding parties in the week of the Queen’s socially-distanced funeral for Prince Philip. “The Prime Minister must have known about that,” notes the MP, and yet “when he spoke to Douglas [that night] he didn’t tell him anything.” The issue for Ross, and for all Tory MPs, is the dawning realisation that No 10’s deceits may be a bottomless pit.
The peril Johnson is in was made clear this morning when William Wragg – the Tory chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee – made an extraordinary statement at the start of a committee hearing. Government whips, he said, have been threatening to withdraw funding from the constituencies of MPs who are thought to be moving against Johnson. Members of the government were also feeding stories to the press designed to embarrass would-be rebels, Wragg claimed. “The reports of which I’m aware would seem to constitute blackmail,” he declared, advising colleagues to report such instances to the Speaker or to the Metropolitan Police.
Wragg, an unwavering Brexiteer and former supporter of Johnson’s, is acting out of principle. He is a young MP – he was elected in 2015 aged 27 – who has little interest in becoming a minister. He recognises bullying and he despises it. As someone familiar with his thinking put it to me, Wragg is not advocating for “proto-anarchy” on the backbenches, but he wants whips to “persuade MPs of the arguments for a particular policy” rather than assuming that they “will go through the lobbies like fodder; yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir – let me be the last applauding the prime minister or risk getting shot”.
Increasingly, that risk provokes no fear in many Tory MPs. After Gray’s report is published, the collapse in Johnson’s position may rapidly become apparent.
[See also: David Gauke: How my party lost its way]