Despite his diversion tactics, Boris Johnson should still be worried

Boris Johnson survived his Commons grilling on Partygate, and last night, most Tory MPs gave him the show of unity he pleaded for at a meeting with them behind closed doors. Typically, he was less contrite in private about being fined for breaking his own lockdown law than he was in the Commons chamber.

To cheer up his troops, Johnson deployed his usual diversionary tactic, unfairly accusing the BBC and bishops, two traditional Tory foes, of “misconstruing” the government’s controversial plan to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda.

He claimed some senior clergy “had been less vociferous in their condemnation on Easter Sunday of Putin than they were on our policy of illegal immigrants.” Never mind the facts; the bishops had condemned the “horrific and unprovoked attack on Ukraine” as a “great evil”.

Johnson won’t care one jot about that; he needs every slice of red meat he can serve up to his ravenous backbenchers. Yet he should be worried that Mark Harper, the former government chief whip, called on him to resign. In his formal letter calling for a vote of confidence in Johnson, harper demolished the latest excuse to which his spineless Tory colleagues cling: the party cannot possibly change its leader during the war in Ukraine.

He argued: “It is especially at times of international crisis that our country needs a prime minister who commands trust, obeys the law and exemplifies the very values ​​that we are trying to defend.”

Johnson allies will accuse Harper of positioning himself for another Tory leadership bid. He was one of 10 candidates to succeed Theresa May in 2019, but was eliminated in the first round. Yet Harper should not be dismissed. He is a serious figure and would enjoy more backbench support than last time after chairing the Covid Recovery Group, which opposed lockdown restrictions.

With Rishi Sunak erased from the leaderboard for now, there would be an appetite if Johnson were ousted for a candidate like Jeremy Hunt, Tom Tugendhat or Harper, untainted by association with a regime which has, in Harper’s words, had to “defend the indefensible on Partygate.

Harper will not be king, but could be a kingmaker – and could certainly play a role in building a coalition that eventually deposes Johnson. His most important statement from him is his warning that the Tories will lose the next general election if Johnson remains leader.

This goes to the heart of the matter. Many Tory MPs dodge this crucial question, always finding a reason to put off Johnson’s reckoning – next month’s local elections, the Metropolitan Police inquiry, Sue Gray’s final report. But Harper has reminded his colleagues that doing nothing is to make a choice – to keep Johnson in place for the general election.

So, it can’t be avoided forever. Reaching a judgment that Johnson is more of an electoral liability than an asset is the only factor that could persuade Tory MPs to oust him. Never mind the national interest of removing the first PM to break the law while in office, it is all about self-interest and saving their own seats. Tory whips fret that new MPs in the red wall will be the first to break ranks.

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Despite the absence of an obvious prime minister-in-waiting, one senior Tory MP told me: “I have every confidence my colleagues will make the right decision. It might still take a few months but I have faith in their judgement. After all, they have every incentive to get it right.”

Johnson’s problem is that there will be more Mark Harpers if the Tories do badly in the local elections – and opinion polls give Labor a substantial lead. James Johnson, who was May’s pollster in Number 10, believes the current PM cannot turn it round, and that Partygate is dragging the Tories down on other issues. If this view takes hold on the Tory backbenches, the PM will be in real trouble.

Skilfully, Keir Starmer adds to the Tory nerves by trying to tarnish their party’s brand, not merely targeting Johnson and Sunak (who have managed to tarnish themselves). That is the point of tomorrow’s Commons motion, calling for the privileges committee to investigate whether Johnson misled Parliament over the Downing Street parties. It will be diluted by Tory MPs on Johnson’s orders, but more brand damage will be done and some uncomfortable Tories will likely abstain.

There is more damage to come: privately, Johnson allies fear he will receive two or three more fines. The excuse he offered for his first fine – regarding the birthday gathering in the cabinet room – will not wash then.

The apparent rallying round by his backbenchers is deceptive. Many Tory MPs are keeping silent and keeping their options open. It’s the quiet ones Johnson needs to watch, and worry about.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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