There is a sense among Tory MPs, even some who have prostituted themselves to support Boris Johnson, that the game is up for him. Even before returning to their constituencies at the end of last week, the bombardment of emails expressing rage at Johnson’s contemptuous behaviour and contemptible leadership had begun. In face-to-face meetings with key activists the sense of outrage was compounded.
The largely meaningless investigation by the senior civil servant Sue Gray – meaningless because everybody knows the facts about what happened at parties, whose existence Johnson does not deny happened – is now being perceived by more and more MPs as just a fig leaf being used to buy Johnson time. He hopes to use that time for tempers to cool and for people to lose interest in his malfeasances. The trouble is, however, that people are not losing interest, and tempers are not cooling. The perception of the hypocrisy of the Prime Minister and his officials not abiding by stringent rules they were imposing on the whole nation, and his arrogance at imagining he should get away with it, is not easily diluted. And although Gray is now reported as interviewing Johnson, few expect him to tell her the truth, any more than he did to Christopher Geidt in the latter’s still unresolved investigation into who paid for Carrie Johnson’s extravagant taste in wallpaper.
MPs now realise Gray will not present Johnson with a get-out-of-jail-free card; but nor, directly, will she send him there. It is not her place to comment on his moral standing; it is her place only to establish what exactly went on at the various parties she is investigating. However, once this civil servant of matchless integrity confirms these parties did take place, it is also established that Johnson lied to the House of Commons in earlier statements about them, or the lack of them. It remains a wide assumption that a prime minister who blatantly lies to the House of Commons cannot remain in office. It is that assumption that is about to be tested, shared as it is by many MPs and an even higher proportion of their activists and constituents.
The expectation among Tory MPs is that Gray, whose own credibility is at stake, must conclude that improper behaviour took place in Downing Street on various occasions. Johnson would then have three options: to resign at once, saying that it was a fair cop; to invite his party to propose a vote of confidence in him, and to dare them to remove him; or to carry on as though nothing has happened, creating a series of further distractions to take the heat off himself, and trust it blows over. At present, it seems he is pursuing the third of those courses: sending out a useful idiot such as Nadine Dorries to talk about ending the BBC licence fee, and briefing that warships are to be sent into the Channel to deal with immigrants, are panic-stricken manifestations of a search for popular initiatives by a Prime Minister who has increasingly been policy-free. At this rate, if he survives, he will soon be offering a referendum on bringing back hanging.
There is also a sense in the parliamentary party that MPs are responsible for inflicting on the country as its head of government a man who not only cannot tell the truth, but who doesn’t care that he can’t because he feels such contempt for colleagues and the public that it doesn’t matter. It is a definition of shamelessness; and an increasing number of MPs, rebuked by their constituents about Johnson’s conduct, are realising they are being asked to defend the indefensible and wrecking their own reputations as a result. Think of the unprecedented action by the officers of the Sutton Coldfield Conservative Association, not a Red Wall seat but one of the safest in the country, in voting unanimously to call for Johnson to go. Think of the torrent of politicians and journalists calling Johnson a liar, without any question of writs for libel following. Never has the office he occupies been so degraded; and never, as a consequence, has his party or the values it purports to represent.
Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee, may or may not receive the 54 letters he needs from MPs for a vote of confidence in Johnson. He is the soul of discretion, but numerous MPs believe the number must be rising from conversations they have had with colleagues; and it is believed many are awaiting the formality of Gray’s report before writing theirs. Senior backbenchers believe one or two cabinet ministers are considering following David Frost and resigning because of their being tainted by Johnson’s palpable dishonesty and arrogance, but in a cabinet as mediocre as this that takes some believing.
If Johnson has to fight a vote of confidence he could even win it, thanks to the payroll vote, even though it is a secret ballot. However Brady, who has a keen interest in history, is well aware that Neville Chamberlain won the Norway debate in 1940 by 81 votes, did not consider it a big enough margin and resigned. Churchill and Lord Halifax may not now be waiting to step up, but Johnson, if he can bear to engage with reality for a moment, needs to start envisaging the scale of humiliation that awaits him, and the reputations of those who back him, if he allows the kakocracy over which he presides to run much longer. With luck, his MPs, acting on the wishes of their activists and the wider public, will save him the trouble.