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Boris Johnson seeks to buy time with mea culpa over Number 10 party

Boris Johnson strode into the House of Commons tea room at lunchtime on Wednesday, an ageless ritual for prime ministers fighting for their political lives. 'Sorry for putting you through all this crap,' Johnson told sullen Tory MPs.

Article originally published by The Financial Times. Hargreaves Lansdown is not responsible for its content or accuracy and may not share the author's views. News and research are not personal recommendations to deal. All investments can fall in value so you could get back less than you invest.

Boris Johnson strode into the House of Commons tea room at lunchtime on Wednesday, an ageless ritual for prime ministers fighting for their political lives. “Sorry for putting you through all this crap,” Johnson told sullen Tory MPs.

Johnson had just apologised to parliament for attending a “bring your own booze” party in the Downing Street garden during England’s first coronavirus lockdown in May 2020, a gathering featuring picnic food and drinks that he thought was a “work event”.

The mea culpa bought Johnson some precious time. But some of the Conservative MPs gathered in the tea room were unimpressed and Johnson remains in grave political trouble. Any time he has bought may turn out to be borrowed.

Several MPs said Johnson was still in denial. “He said that sometimes in life you get the credit for things you don’t deserve, while sometimes you get the blame for something you don’t deserve, too,” said one Tory MP. “He goes through his life thinking he doesn’t deserve the blame.”

Johnson’s precarious grip on power was laid bare just hours later when Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, called on him to resign. Senior Tories on the executive of the 1922 committee of backbench Conservative MPs, met to discuss his fate. William Wragg, vice-chair, said Johnson’s position was “untenable”.

Across the Conservative party, from former Johnson loyalists to longstanding critics, some MPs have concluded the prime minister has to go, his judgment and honesty no longer trusted, his popularity with the public plummeting. What is less clear is when.

Many Tory MPs said they would for now suspend judgment on Johnson until the publication of a report by Sue Gray, a senior Whitehall official, into the apparent party culture in Number 10 during Covid-19 restrictions. That report is unlikely to be published until next week.

But Johnson’s allies expect that Gray’s report will spread the blame widely, including to Downing Street officials, and that the prime minister will be able to escape with his job intact. “He’ll offer a grovelling apology and move on,” predicted one former cabinet minister.

Even senior Labour figures expect Johnson to “limp on” past the Gray report. “Sue is a tough civil servant, but she’s not going to say that Johnson should go to Buckingham Palace and resign,” said one ally of Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.

Indeed Johnson is likely to use the Gray report as a pretext to clear out some of his underperforming team — including Martin Reynolds, the head of the prime minister’s office who organised the May 2020 party — offering the impression of a fresh start.

Tobias Ellwood, Tory chair of the Commons defence committee, said Conservative MPs would welcome a reset of Johnson’s team. “We require an overhaul as to how Number 10 operates. Boris has some incredible strengths — but like any leader, also he must acknowledge his weaknesses.”

But will Tory MPs use Gray’s report — expected to be robust in criticising Johnson’s Number 10 — to push ahead with an immediate leadership challenge? “It’s not a legal matter now but a political one,” said one government member.

The level of anger is palpable. “People have had enough of Boris,” added the government member. “When you’re so dependent on popularity and it disappears, you’re done.” Sir Roger Gale, a veteran Tory MP, said Johnson was “a dead man walking”.

But the Conservative party, for all the angst circulating about the prime minister, seems psychologically unready at the moment to ditch a leader who secured an 80-seat Commons majority at the 2019 general election.

There is not a ready-made alternative prime minister. Chancellor Rishi Sunak, conveniently more than 200 miles away on Wednesday at a business visit in south-west England and too busy to support Johnson in local media interviews, is the bookmakers’ favourite to be next Tory leader but is not a shoo-in.

Liz Truss, foreign secretary, and Michael Gove, levelling up minister, are also seen as contenders. Although Truss has held drinks parties for new MPs, none of the potential candidates wants to be seen as responsible for “regicide” and are holding back.

Given all this, many Tory MPs on Wednesday afternoon were reverting to their plan A hatched late last year after media reports of Downing Street parties during Covid-19 restrictions: give Johnson until the local council elections on May 5 to turn things around, with a summer leadership challenge to follow if — as they expect — they go disastrously.

This highlights how for the moment, at least, Johnson’s enemies are circling but have yet to deliver a killer blow. It has raised hopes among the prime minister’s allies that he has perhaps a 70 per cent chance of getting out of this latest crisis of his own making.

They can see a route through for Johnson, where he rides out the Gray report and then announces he will not renew Covid-19 restrictions in England when they expire on January 26: delighting Tory MPs with the prospect of a brighter post-pandemic world.

But it might only be a short reprieve for Johnson, given the escalating cost-of-living crisis focused on surging household energy bills and inflation heading towards 6 per cent, and the expected Conservative mauling in the May 5 local elections.

“His leadership is no longer viable,” said one former minister. “We should get rid of him before he takes a load of good councillors with him.” Another Conservative MP said party candidates for the local elections were calling for Johnson to be ousted.

The Tory mood at Westminster is febrile. One former cabinet minister said letters from Conservative MPs demanding a vote of no confidence in Johnson were being sent to Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee.

With his Scottish party in full revolt and some Tory MPs in England openly calling for him to quit, the embattled prime minister is likely to become an increasingly regular fixture in the Commons tea room in the weeks ahead.

This article was written by Laura Hughes, George Parker, Sebastian Payne and Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe from The Financial Times and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.


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    Article originally published by The Financial Times. Hargreaves Lansdown is not responsible for its content or accuracy and may not share the author's views. News and research are not personal recommendations to deal. All investments can fall in value so you could get back less than you invest.

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