At the start of the week, Boris Johnson’s premiership looked secure. Now it’s in danger once again. The government were forced to U-turn yesterday on a motion to launch a privileges committee investigation into whether the Prime Minister misled parliament after enough Tory MPs said they wouldn’t vote with the government.
The committee will begin its inquiry once the Metropolitan Police finish their investigation. Combined with the summer recess, this means the investigation could last until the autumn. On the one hand, that provides another excuse – another investigation – which Tory MPs can blame for not removing the Prime Minister. On the other, the investigation could uncover material such as photos that prove damning for the Prime Minister. In any case, partygate is now set to endure beyond the police investigation – if Tory MPs don’t move against Johnson before then.
What would a renewed revolt look like? As one senior Tory rebel told me last night, it would be unlike the co-ordinated rebellion to bring down Theresa May during the Brexit years. That was a matter of policy, they said. Whereas this is a personal decision for MPs about their own integrity. For this reason, any opposition against Johnson is likely to remain organic and leaderless – injecting an uncertainty into its success.
Nonetheless, the calls for Johnson to go from influential MPs such as Mark Harper and Steve Baker are not only symbolically important given their role in organising against May, they serve as an impetus for other, often inert, Tory MPs to act. This is particularly true for those Tory MPs elected in 2019 who may need guidance from their colleagues. Indeed, one senior MP told me yesterday they’d already had multiple MPs ask for advice in criticising Johnson. And the discontent extends to the government itself: a minister I saw yesterday expressed admiration for the rebels’ speeches.
There will now be a pause. The Met Police have said they won’t declare any fines they issue before the local elections and MPs are due to decant to their constituencies next week as parliament prepares for the Queen’s Speech. But what we saw yesterday was the germination of a rebellion against Johnson. A poor showing in the locals, combined with several more fines and a damning Sue Gray report could convince enough Tory MPs that, as Steve Baker put it yesterday, “the gig’s up”.
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