Boris Johnson faces a dangerous week as Conservative MPs return to Westminster after receiving an avalanche of demands from local party members and voters that they force the prime minister out of office.
Johnson has drawn up a plan to save his job, including cleaning up his Downing Street operation, while trying to blame his backroom staff for the “culture” of drinking and Covid lockdown parties.
But on Monday, Conservative MPs will be in a feverish mood, with some claiming that 20-30 colleagues have sent letters demanding a no-confidence vote on the prime minister.
“It’s not just the usual suspects,” said a former cabinet minister. A senior Conservative MP said he had received almost 500 emails in recent days, virtually all of them calling for Johnson to resign. “It’s pretty bad,” he said.
Although Johnson would face a no-confidence motion if 53 Conservative MPs demand one, most Conservatives believe the prime minister is not yet doomed. “There is a window of survival for him, but it is closing fast,” said a former minister.
The prime minister’s team still believes he can get back to the front with a series of announcements, allowing him to lurch into a highly problematic round of local elections in May.
Although Downing Street insisted it did not “recognize the terms”, Johnson’s survival plan is now jokingly described in Whitehall as Operation Save Big Dog and his set of new policies is dubbed Operation Red Meat.
The long-awaited selection of Downing Street officials and advisers will follow the publication, possibly this week, of a report on the Whitehall festivities by Sue Gray, a senior civil servant.
Gray’s report is expected to be highly critical of Downing Street staff and expose in detail an apparent culture of drinking and breaking the Covid rules. But he is not expected to blame Johnson directly for this.
Oliver Dowden, the Conservative chairman, said he did not expect Johnson to face a follow-up investigation by Lord Geidt, the adviser on ministerial standards, and said parliament would hold the prime minister accountable.
“I’m not ruling out for a second that the kind of events we’ve seen were dead wrong,” he told Sky News on Sunday. Johnson was determined to “address the kind of culture in Downing Street that allowed something like this to happen.”
Martin Reynolds, Johnson’s top private secretary, Dan Rosenfield, chief of staff and some communications staff are among those who could be evicted from Downing Street.
Most Conservative MPs do not believe that the Gray report itself condemns Johnson, although many believe that the Number 10 “culture”, with multi-party reporting during the Covid lockdowns, came from the top.
“If you have a boss who plays fast and loose with the rules and gets away with it, then it’s no wonder the employees who work for him think they can do the same,” said a former minister.
Labor leader Keir Starmer believes Johnson is trying to hide behind the Gray report. On Sunday he claimed that the prime minister had “demoted the position of prime minister”, broken the law and should resign.
Dave Penman, head of the FDA officials union, said: “This is not a civil service culture, it’s a culture in this Number 10 under this prime minister.”
While Johnson will be applauded by many Conservative MPs for shaking up what they see as a failed 10th deal, the impending selection of advisers and officials could spell even more trouble.
“Who is going to work for him now?” a senior adviser asked. “The mood at Number 10 is already really bad. There is a fracture between the officials and the political extreme. Everyone is looking for a way out.”
The danger for Johnson in scapegoating is that it widens the circle of people willing to leak damaging stories against him. “The risk is that there is one death per thousand cuts,” said a former cabinet minister.
On Sunday, Downing Street denied claims that Johnson was given advance warning that Reynolds was planning a “bring your own drink” party in the Downing Street garden on May 20, 2020, in apparent breach of the rules of blockade of england
Johnson hopes he can get past the criticism in the Gray report and try to move on to a political agenda to reassure his conservative critics that he is still in control.
The key announcement is expected to be the removal of Covid-19 restrictions when they legally expire on January 26, which Johnson will hail as vindication of the government’s massive vaccine booster campaign.
Also in the pipeline are Michael Gove’s long-awaited “leveling” white paper, measures to keep household energy bills low, a freeze on the BBC’s license fee, and greater military involvement in controlling the flow of money. immigrants across the English Channel in small boats. .
Most Conservative MPs hope Johnson will survive to deliver on his “red meat” policies in the coming weeks, but the mood in Westminster is volatile and could change quickly if more damaging revelations emerge.
Sir Roger Gale, Conservative MP for North Thanet and one of half a dozen Conservatives who have publicly called for Johnson’s resignation, told the FT: “I have had some distressing emails from constituents in recent days regarding the parties.
“All of this is opening up old wounds for people, especially those who have lost loved ones and have made tremendous sacrifices for the lockdown.”
Some Conservative MPs believe Johnson does not take responsibility for what happened, despite apologizing to the nation last Wednesday.
A Tory MP said that Johnson, in private meetings, “seemed completely unrepentant, almost suggesting that he had done nothing wrong”. The MP added: “We were all shocked, what does that say about his character?”