Boris Johnson’s future hangs in the balance as Conservatives spend the weekend deciding the PM’s fate

Boris Johnson
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Leon Neal/Getty Images
  • Claims of lockdown-busting parties have seen Boris Johnson’s support ebb, even from the Brexiteers who once loved him.
  • Tories are quitting the party, while others threaten to pull support if he doesn’t go in the coming weeks, Members of Parliament told Insider.
  • MPs are using the weekend to decide whether to push for Johnson’s departure.

As Conservative MPs returned to their constituencies after another week of fresh allegations of lockdown-busting parties at Downing Street, they were left wondering what reaction they would find back home. 

Boris Johnson, the man once seen as electoral dynamite, is now increasingly seen as politically toxic. The question his backbenchers will have to answer this weekend is whether his toxicity is terminal. 

The prime minister’s apology to the House of Commons – in which he acknowledged the public “rage” caused by ITV’s revelation of a “bring your own booze” garden party held in May 2020 — did little to quell the anger on Tory benches. But it did initially appear to buy him some time.

Then came another set of revelations. This time, two leaving parties, for which a No. 10 staffer was dispatched to buy a suitcase’s worth of wine, were held in Downing Street on April 16, 2021, the night before Prince Philip’s funeral.

The fact the story appeared in The Telegraph, Johnson’s former employer, under a headline emphasising the monarch’s solitude in her grief, strikes at the heart of the matter.

“I thought the [partygate] story was dying a death, but to do that to Her Majesty — it’s gone down very, very badly,” a former minister told Insider. “We’ve got people leaving the [Conservative] party — not just people who have voted for us for the last 40 years, but people who have been members. We’ve got to do something.”

All the politicians Insider interviewed for this story requested anonymity to speak freely, but their identities are known to Insider.

Queen arriving at funeral
Queen Elizabeth II arriving at Prince Philip’s funeral. WPA Pool / Pool / Getty Images

Johnson was not at the leaving parties: Downing Street said he had by then left for Chequers, his weekend retreat. But on the back of multiple previous allegations, this defence is not washing with MPs. That means the prime minister’s chances of survival have worsened.

“People were pissed off before,” one member of Johnson’s government told Insider. “But now? We’re not just dealing with a drip-drip of leaks — it’s a raging river.”

Johnson should make ‘dignified exit’

To add further insult to injury, The Telegraph also carried a column from Andrew Bridgen MP, a trenchant Brexiteer, in which he revealed that “with a heavy heart” he had sent a letter of no confidence and called for Johnson to make “a dignified exit.”

While Bridgen is no stranger to sending such letters — having done the same to Theresa May and David Cameron — his move is being watched with interest as a possible canary in the coalmine for other Brexiteers. 

MPs can no longer be sure that Johnson’s Brexit credentials will keep them safe: The EU referendum made no difference to the by-election in North Shropshire, a Leave-backing constituency, which turned its back on the Conservatives in favour of the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats. 

Another pro-Brexit backbencher told Insider this is simply not a factor he is weighing up when deciding whether to pull his support — it is now a question of trust and morals.

“My dilemma is — I really like the PM on a personal basis but I think he has got this horribly wrong,” he says. “My genuine worry is this is a pattern of things — not just the prime minister, but people around him. You can go back to things like the free school meals, when no one at No. 10 thought that would be a thorny issue, and there are a number of things like that. 

“I’ve got to think: What are the ramifications in future if I don’t take action on this — when people will say ‘you had the chance to do something about it?'”

Johnson’s apology ‘might speed up’ letters of no confidence

Throughout this week there has been much talk of letters being sent to Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 committee and the only man in Westminster who knows exactly how close the prime minister is to the no-confidence-vote threshold of 54. 

Another former minister told Insider that one colleague had sent theirs through a friend, so as not to be spotted by reporters, such is the level of secrecy involved. One of Parliament’s newest MPs told Insider he had written his letter but wasn’t sure of the “etiquette” about sending it in, and whether he could use the internal post to do so. 

The new MP said the first wave of letters was triggered by Johnson’s “half-arsed apology” delivered shortly before PMQs — in which Johnson said he “must take responsibility” for a May 2020 garden party but “believed implicitly that this was a work event” — and that the prime minister’s reaction “might speed up” the number of letters going in.

Insider understands that as of Thursday morning, the estimated number of letters to Brady had reached the mid-20s. The “suitcase of wine” story broke later that day, meaning more can be expected to land in the coming days

Support ebbs from all sides

For Johnson, the biggest problem is that the calls for him to go are not coming from a particular group or caucus. 

One MP texted Insider: “The PM has managed something no leader since Thatcher has done — united the parliamentary party from left to right! But against him.”

Least surprising were the calls from Caroline Nokes MP, the former immigration minister, and Roger Gale MP — neither of whom could be described as fans — for Johnson to go.

But it is seen as significant that William Wragg, the well-respected chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and Christian Wakeford MP, a member of the 2019 intake, did likewise. Although both have taken a stance against the prime minister before, neither are seen as having agendas or prior beef. They represent a growing desire for better governance and leadership. 

The call made by Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross was perhaps understandable, given Johnson’s unpopularity north of the border; but Jacob Rees-Mogg’s subsequent description of his colleague as “lightweight” has further fuelled the flames.  

“You do not go and say the leader of our party in another part of UK is a lightweight,” a Conservative backbencher told Insider. “If it was slip of a tongue in heated exchange, and then Jacob had apologized — fine, but he repeated it. 

“That meant it was a sanctioned line that No. 10 had used. That is the priority of this executive — keeping Boris Johnson in No. 10, regardless of what it does to the party. He is a scorched-earth politician.”

Another MP told Insider that increasingly core Conservative voters are “pissed off with the dysfunction” and that it “plays into the narrative” that those in the former Labour heartlands have long believed: “That the Tories don’t give a shit about you.”

Conservative associations ‘making it really tough’

Tory associations are now flexing their muscles with the Conservative association of Sutton Coldfield, a Tory stronghold, symbolically voting 10-0 to pass a motion calling for Johnson to stand down, according to the Birmingham Post and Mail’s Jonathan Walker

Another MP told Insider that her association would be holding an “informal” discussion on ousting Johnson, but that she had already been warned by some party members that Johnson must go by March at the latest, otherwise they will quit and take their donations and campaign support with them. 

“Associations are going to make it really tough for people,” the MP said, noting that this will include ministers, who have had to back the boss, even if the support was patchy. 

On Wednesday morning, following ITV’s revelation about Johnson attending the May 2020 garden party, no member of the government went on the usual round of interviews.  

One minister predicted this as confidence ebbed and Tories became reluctant to “put their head above the parapet.”

He told Insider he was “disappointed” and “upset” by the allegations as he had been unable to see dying loved ones when some of the parties were being held, and had “frustrations” at the timing of the apology. 

“We could have done with a lot more being discussed earlier on in this process,” he said.

Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, was one of the few MPs to deliver a fulsome defence of her long-time ally — though this was derided by backbenchers as “an indication how bad things really are.”

Others including Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss, Steve Barclay, Nadhim Zahawi, James Cleverly, and Oliver Dowden, tweeted tepid calls for patience, some of which sounded so similar they appeared to be copy-and-pasted from a central script.

Many of these are names associated with a potential leadership bid, attempting to do just enough to keep the show on the road while risking undermining their longer ambitions. 

The coming days are now expected to be critical for Johnson’s survival, with one backbencher saying it was “make or break” for his premiership.

Several MPs across various Tory factions told Insider they were planning to use the weekend to take the temperature in their constituencies and wrestle with their own consciences about what to do for the best. 

Three used variations of the phrase “it’s not if, it’s when,” in terms of Johnson’s exit from the role. 

Others are waiting until Sue Gray’s inquiry into the various allegations of parties, which is expected to conclude as early as this week. Anything less than censure of Downing Street will be seen as a whitewash, but with the Metropolitan Police yet again refusing to investigate, much now hinges on the work of a single official, albeit one that is widely respected. 

Can Johnson reassert his authority?

Even if Johnson is cleared, there are questions about whether he can come back from the brink. 

“The next question is how he asserts his authority because obviously confidence, when it starts to ebb away, can get ahead of you,” the minister told Insider. “There is a certain amount of reset that needs to take place.”

Multiple Tories believe Johnson needs to undertake wholesale personnel change in Downing Street if he is to cling on, with Martin Reynolds — author of the infamous ‘bring your own booze’ email — and Dan Rosenfield, Johnson’s chief of staff, among those potentially in the firing line. 

Summer recess is line in the sand for change

If the prime minister does make it past this immediate moment of peril, he is not out of the woods. Westminster is rife with talk of the drip-drip of party allegations, with every few days bringing another set of claims that could topple him. 

The Chinese water torture may yet prove too much for those backbenchers who have held out so far. Others have speculated it may be this that causes Johnson — a man who welcomed two children and was hospitalised with COVID-19 while running the country — to walk away from the job he has sought all his life.

Local elections next May could be another crunch point, with MPs weighing whether to use them to test the waters — or justify potentially sacrificing council colleagues. 

“Until this week, people were thinking they’d wait until the local elections. But if they concede that we’re going to get clobbered, the question is — should you do something now to prevent colleagues losing seats?”

Those in Parliament believe a general election will either take place in September 2023 or May 2024, with Sunak having promised colleagues he will cut taxes ahead of any return to the ballot box. But any potential leader would want at least 18 months before that point. 

Tory MPs believe something must change by the summer recess at the absolute latest. If it is not the culture of Downing Street, it almost certainly will be the man.