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The Prime Minister was visiting council areas in the North and Wales with just 10 days to go before the town hall polls. The Conservatives are braced for losses in the elections as the partygate scandal has re-ignited, with Mr Johnson being fined £50 for attending his surprise birthday party in No10, and as the cost-of-living squeeze is worsening.
A senior Tory source said: “We are all anticipating a grisly night. But in areas that have never previously had a Conservative MP, local party infrastructure, a Tory voice in the local press and media, there may be pockets of progress.”
On his visit, Mr Johnson was expected to trumpet the benefits of a free trade deal with India — if one can be struck by the autumn — for exporters.
However, the threat facing the Prime Minister was highlighted today by a leading Conservative pollster predicting that he will face a challenge for the Tory leadership after MPs return from their summer break.
Lord Hayward believes that the “difficulties” swirling around the Prime Minister with the partygate scandal will “go on and on and on”. He also stressed that MPs criticising Mr Johnson were not some “sectoral manoeuvre” within the Tory party, but came from a wide range of parliamentarians.
He told Talk Radio: “What we are going to see is a protracted summer of difficulties for the Prime Minister and for the Government. You are going to have the police decisions in relation to fines on other events. Then you get the Sue Gray report, then you get the privileges committee.”
Asked whether he thought Mr Johnson would still be PM at the end of this summer, the peer said: “I think by then yes, later no.”
Pressed on when he thought Mr Johnson would go, Lord Hayward added: “I think at some stage later this year there will be a challenge in some form.” Activists, particularly in London, are said to be finding that partygate is being brought up as an issue on the doorstep by voters.
Tory candidates are seeking to persuade local residents to cast their vote on local issues, with the Standard revealing last week that hundreds of them are standing in London as “local Conservatives”.
However, a Whitehall official, who was not named, said Mr Johnson could be forced to resign after the Gray report is published, according to The Times.
Ms Gray, a senior civil servant, was forced to delay the publication of her investigation into alleged parties held in Downing Street and Whitehall during England’s lockdowns due to the Met commencing its own inquiry.
In an interim report published in January, the Cabinet Office official said there had been “failures of leadership and judgement” in No 10 over the saga. The Times, citing an official it described as being familiar with the contents of the complete report, said Ms Gray’s full findings were even more personally critical of the Prime Minister and could end his premiership. According to the paper, the official said: “Sue’s report is excoriating. It will make things incredibly difficult for the Prime Minister.”
But minister for technology and the digital economy Chris Philp sought to play down reports of a growing Conservative rebellion over the parties. He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “Talking to lots of MPs…to be honest it [a Tory revolt] didn’t come up with colleagues.”