Boris Johnson has — almost — made it to recess without a challenge to his leadership. Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers, won’t count the letters of no confidence again until the House returns on 21 February so, as long as he reaches the end of the day without a sudden stream of letters from Conservative MPs, the Prime Minister will have a week’s reprieve from fire-fighting to save his premiership.
It seemed unimaginable a few weeks ago, but the Prime Minister has clung on and his position has stabilised. At the point where he seemed in most danger, all he asked his MPs for was time. They granted him that, and in the interim Tories who were on the verge of submitting a letter of no confidence have been persuaded to give him another chance.
It has taken a lot of effort from Johnson and his supporters behind the scenes to reach this point. The “shadow whipping operation” conducted by Johnson loyalists sounded out MPs, fed their concerns back to the Prime Minister, and persuaded many worried backbenchers not to give in to the agenda of a media “baying for blood” and to give Johnson time to prove himself. The Prime Minister has done a lot of the heavy lifting himself, ringing MPs and holding one-to-one meetings with waverers, allowing them to lay into him and tell him what they really think.
He has also been visiting the constituencies of wavering MPs and giving them the old razzle-dazzle: knocking on doors, speaking to voters and persuading concerned MPs that, despite it all, there are few politicians who can charm voters like he can. “I admit I was very impressed,” admits one MP who received a visit from the PM recently. “He’s a class act, he’s still got something when he interacts with voters. I don’t see those leadership qualities from anyone else in cabinet at the moment.” With worries and doubts over who might replace Johnson, Conservative MPs want to stick with the devil they know, at least for now.
So Johnson has reached a place of relative stability, even if MPs remain angry and the government’s agenda and energy is sapped up by Partygate. Yet there is a new, entirely foreseeable, development that could change things. It has been reported this morning that police investigating Downing Street’s lockdown parties are to question more than 50 people believed to have been in attendance, including No 10 advisers, Carrie Johnson and the Prime Minister himself. The police press release makes it clear that, although being questioned doesn’t “necessarily” mean the person in question will be fined, this is “normally” what happens.
The barrister Adam Wagner, who has been tracking Covid-19 legislation, has suggested that Johnson “could be in line for £10,000 in fixed term penalty notices” accrued over six parties. The Prime Minister could yet find that his strategy of buying himself more time has only pushed a confidence vote into a more dangerous period, where he has been found to have broken the law and Conservative MPs decide they can’t justify giving him one more chance.
[See also: Conservative MPs face a defining choice]