The moment we’ve all been waiting for has come and gone. Six months after it began, Sue Gray’s report into the Downing Street parties was finally published yesterday. Afterwards the Prime Minister grovelled to parliament, held a press conference, and addressed his backbench MPs.
The report contained lurid and incriminating details about the regular wine-fuelled parties that became a fixture during the lockdowns in Downing Street. But the sting was missing and the response from Tory backbenchers was tepid. We already knew Gray’s main conclusions from her January update and four months on her language became even more temperate.
Nonetheless, this was the moment many MPs said they would come to a decision about the Prime Minister’s future. And sources tell me that at least one – potentially four – letters of no confidence were sent to the chair of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee yesterday. Although momentum has slowed and Boris Johnson looks secure, one Tory MP reminded me that the requisite 54 letters could be reached at any moment. Indeed, MPs’ support for Johnson is far from full-throated. Much like the cheer that erupted when Johnson entered the chamber for PMQs, the cries of support for the Prime Minister at last night’s 1922 Committee meeting, an attendee tells me, came from a small group of supporters.
Overall, the feeling among most Conservative MPs I spoke to yesterday was weary acceptance. “I’m just going to get on with my job. I’m fed up with it,” one said. “I’ve got so much else on my mind,” said another. As a leading rebel told me, “it’s becoming a slow, miserable grind – which some of my colleagues seem to enjoy as a lifestyle.”
MPs are stuck in the grey area. The question buzzing around Westminster is why Tory MPs continue to support Johnson when he’s no longer an electoral asset. The problem is that when you remove a Prime Minister, you need a replacement. Rishi Sunak’s week of shame in April punctured the political standing of Johnson’s main rival. Perhaps Sunak will recover or another cabinet minister will flourish. But for the moment, there’s no clear leader around which Johnson’s detractors can corral. As one MP told me, “When colleagues are debating the future in the tearoom, you ask them ‘if not Boris, who?’ and they shuffle around nervously and look at their feet.”
The problem is that the situation for the Conservative Party is unlikely to improve under Johnson. The PM’s supporters would disagree and say there’s plenty of time for him to recover in the polls. As one government minister put it to me, “if the election was tomorrow, I’d be shitting myself – but it’s not”. But the past six months have only provided more evidence of Johnson’s lust for scandal. Time is running out to deliver on the promise to level up the country, and the cost-of-living crisis looms. An early election now looks unlikely as the government scramble to plate up something edible before they face the voters. And whenever that happens, the stench of partygate will remain.