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Analysis: Backbenchers are spotting opportunities to take advantage of a weakened leader
Boris Johnson and the Conservative party are facing crises on multiple fronts, all interconnected in various ways. As the pressure mounts on the prime minister, his MPs are spotting opportunities to take advantage of a weakened leader by pressing hard for different concessions.
Here we take a look at the challenges facing Johnson, and the demands he is facing from his MPs that may help them go away.
Partygate Still the biggest threat to Johnson’s premiership, the government and the Conservative party have been rocked by a series of claims about staff parties held in Downing Street and elsewhere in Whitehall while lockdown restrictions were in place.
From the “bring your own booze” party of 20 May 2020 in the Downing Street gardens to the Christmas party in December 2020 that the PM’s former press secretary was filmed joking about, allegations of Covid rule-flouting have mounted up.
Sue Gray, the senior civil servant tasked with looking into the claims, is expected to publish her findings this week. She has reportedly interviewed Downing Street police officers about the allegations and was due to interview Dominic Cummings, the PM’s former adviser, on Monday.
Islamophobia Johnson has been forced into ordering a formal inquiry into allegations by the Tory MP Nusrat Ghani that she was sacked as a minister after being told her “Muslimness” was “making colleagues uncomfortable”.
Ghani, an MP since 2015 who lost her job as a junior transport minister during a reshuffle in early 2020, said Tory whips told her that her “Muslim woman minister status was making colleagues feel uncomfortable”. The Conservative chief whip, Mark Spencer, identified himself as the person accused of making the remarks.
Whips’ tactics The Conservative party whips – officials whose task is to ensure party discipline – have been accused of using blackmail against MPs seeking to oust Johnson. The senior Conservative MP William Wragg, who chairs a government scrutiny committee, claimed there was attempted blackmail against some of his colleagues involving public money.
Two MPs – the Tory defector Christian Wakeford and Andrew Bridgen, another Johnson critic – have spoken publicly about the tactics they claim were deployed against them. Wakeford backed up the claims by Wragg that threats involving public money were made by the whips.
Wragg and others have encouraged MPs to report such behaviour to the police.
The culture at No 10 Underpinning all of the above are questions about the culture over which Johnson has presided at the very top of government, including an allegedly rampant drinking culture among staff. Reports of a member of the team filling up a suitcase with booze from a supermarket for one of the parties were reportedly not a one-off.
There have been numerous reports that the PM is considering firing several of his aides, including but not limited to Dan Rosenfield, the longtime civil servant who became his chief of staff only a year ago; Martin Reynolds, the PM’s principal private secretary who sent the above-mentioned “bring your own booze” invite; and Jack Doyle, the No 10 director of communications.
There are reports that frustrated MPs are taking advantage of the prime minister’s weak position to press for concessions on key policy and legislative changes. These include:
Drop planned rise in national insurance contributions (NICs) Conservative MPs have reportedly met the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to apply pressure on the Treasury to ditch the planned 1.25% rise in NICs in April, which they argue will hit families at a time when they are also facing a sharp rise in the cost of living.
Cut VAT on energy bills The PM is reportedly considering cutting VAT on energy bills. Labour and energy firms have called for the move – and so have some Tory MPs, who are piling pressure on the PM to act.
Push back mandatory NHS jabs The Sunday Telegraph reported that an option being considered by Downing Street is to delay by six months the requirement for all NHS staff to have a Covid vaccine, to help quell a revolt among Tory MPs.
Other policies facing scrutiny from Johnson’s MPs include pressure to drop what the Tory peer Lord Marland has called “fluffy” environmental policies, for which Marland provides the animal welfare sentience bill as an example, while the prominent backbencher Steve Baker has said net zero emissions targets could be “bigger than Brexit” for potential to cause unrest.
Post-Brexit politics continue to play a role, though, with reports that the Tory MP Bernard Jenkin has laid out Brexiter demands in return for support for Johnson. Elsewhere, a ban on gay conversion practices could be in backbench sights, with as many as 30 Tory MPs warning against rushing through a new law “without debate”.