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Is the Sue Gray report damning enough for Tories to turn on Boris Johnson?

The civil servant’s findings will only lead to a leadership contest if it serves the self-interest of Conservative MPs.

By Harry Lambert

Here we are, at last. After nearly six months, the Sue Gray report is due today. The final elements of the inquiry were completed last night, according to the BBC, with the report expected to have been sent to No 10 shortly thereafter. Downing Street is now in charge of deciding when to publish the report, and it is expected any minute this morning.

It is worth pausing to remember how this report, which I think may be more damaging than many seem to expect, came to be. Why has Boris Johnson allowed this day of judgement to arrive? It has been reported by the Times that in recent days he tried to prevent the publication of Gray’s report – but he did not always fear her inquiry.

Initially Johnson welcomed it. He lauded Gray for her integrity and independence when he hoped she would, being an employee of his government, produce something usefully anodyne that would absolve him of blame for breaking the rules he set during lockdown. That may box Johnson into a corner if Gray finds strongly against him today: the Prime Minister and his MPs have spent months stressing the need to wait for, and defer to, the judgement of Sue Gray before commenting on partygate. They cannot now easily discredit her if they dislike her findings.

But judging whether Johnson should stay in office has always been a political decision – for either his own MPs or the public at the next election – not one that can be made by officials, whether Sue Gray or the police. “It’s time for colleagues to get off the fence,” a Tory from the 2019 intake of new MPs tells me. “It’s not just a question of morality but also electability. Boris is leading us to a 1997-style defeat.”

I asked one old lobby hand yesterday whether Gray’s report could spark pangs of conscience that might be lying latent in Tory MPs. “Pangs of self-interest perhaps,” they replied. They are right: Boris Johnson will be forced out when a majority of Tory MPs think their prospects will be enhanced by a change in leader – and not before. MPs are not alone in sacrificing their moral principles for personal survival or advancement.

Yet the striking fact at present is that Tory anger at Johnson has cooled despite little to no improvement in the party’s standing in the polls. According to our election model, three in ten Tory MPs are set to lose their seats at the next election. Take the 54 seats that the Tories gained from Labour in 2019. On current national polls (which show 38 per cent of voters favouring Labour, and 34 per cent Conservative), 51 of those 54 MPs could expect to lose their seats. A further 43 Tories in other, longer-held seats would also be likely to lose to Labour, with 12 more Conservative MPs on course to lose their seats to the Lib Dems. Meanwhile, on these estimates, all six Scottish Tory MPs would lose their seats to the SNP. What are these MPs waiting for?

Today may be the moment that some finally decide to act. But paradigms take time to shift, and after Johnson survived the immediate heat of the partygate inquiry – in the wake of Sue Gray’s damning initial findings in late January, and the resignation of his long-time policy chief Munira Mirza – a received wisdom set in across the Tory party that Johnson was going to survive. Until the image of Johnson as a vote-winner begins to dissolve, a process that today’s report may begin, the deep strains of discontent among Tory MPs will continue to be suppressed.

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This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

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