Tory MPs openly discuss Johnson challenge as mood ‘turns dramatically’

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<span>Photograph: Paul Grover/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Paul Grover/AFP/Getty Images

MPs from across party confident of enough letters to trigger leadership contest after Sue Gray’s report


The mood of Conservative MPs was hardening against Boris Johnson on Tuesday night, with open talk of how to oust the prime minister and who should succeed him as he gave a disastrous interview claiming not to have lied over Downing Street parties.

A string of Tory MPs from various ranks and wings of the party said they believed there would be enough letters to trigger a leadership contest after the publication of the Sue Gray report into allegations of lockdown breaches, with some reports on Tuesday night that it could come sooner.

Johnson was trying to shore up his support in the parliamentary party after it emerged a group of a dozen or so of the 2019 intake had met in the office of Alicia Kearns to discuss his future as prime minister.

After the meeting – dubbed the “pork pie putsch” as Kearns’ constituency contains Melton Mowbray – one MP said there were about 20 letters, “some sent, some in draft”. There needs to be 54 letters submitted to trigger a confidence ballot against the prime minister, who met some of the new cohort on Tuesday evening.

With MPs plotting his demise, Johnson emerged from isolation in No 10 to defend himself against claims from Dominic Cummings, his former aide, that he lied to parliament about believing a garden party in the first lockdown was a work event.

The prime minister said “no one warned” him that that the 20 May 2020 “bring your own booze” party he attended alongside 30-40 staff was against the rules, and confirmed he had given his account of events to Gray.

“I can’t believe we would have gone ahead with an event that people said was against the rules … nobody warned me it was against the rules, I am categorical about that – I would have remembered that,” he told Sky News.

But Cummings claimed two officials warned the prime minister against holding a party. It is understood the former aide will also be interviewed by the Gray inquiry, which is expected to report in the coming week.

In his interview, Johnson refused several times to rule out resigning and some Tory MPs believe he could agree to step down rather than go through a confidence ballot of the parliamentary party.

Tory MPs said colleagues increasingly believed Johnson was more likely than not to face a confidence ballot, probably after the Gray report is published.

A frontbencher said: “The mood has turned dramatically. He’s in real trouble. And it’s not just the 2019ers panicking about their seats. It’s quieter older colleagues. Unless the report says something staggeringly good, we will have a challenge.”

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Another Tory MP said: “It’s terminal. It’s turned from red hot anger to [a] cold, calculating sense of ‘How do we do this? And who are we supporting?’ … It’s a question of when, not whether.

“Letters are coming from the left and from the right, from Brexiters and remainers, because what is slowly dawning on people is that there’s not a policy issue; this is a mindset, a modus operandi and culture that needs changing.”

Christian Wakeford, a 2019-intake MP, became the seventh Tory to reveal he had submitted a no confidence letter on Tuesday.

While Tory MPs said other letters were being prepared and saved as draft emails, some rebels urged colleagues not to submit them to the 1922 Committee before Gray’s report because Johnson could win a vote held too early.

One Tory MP insisted Johnson “will not win a vote of no confidence as there is no incentive to support him”. “With Theresa [May], she had those who were frightened of what could come next. He does not have that,” they said, adding: “It’s a disaster if it’s triggered before the report comes out, it will be held immediately and then people will not want to be judge before the evidence is finalised.”

Tories said parliament was full of talk about potential leadership campaigns, including by the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who is believed to have the sharpest operation, and Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, who is in Australia.

Other names being discussed included Sajid Javid, Nadhim Zahawi and Penny Mordaunt, while there are also possible candidates from the lockdown-sceptic right, such as Mark Harper, Steve Baker and Esther McVey.

Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary and former rival to Johnson for the leadership, gave an interview to PoliticsHome saying his “ambition hasn’t completely vanished” although claiming “it would take a lot to persuade me to put my hat into the ring”.

Sunak gave only qualified support for the prime minister, saying he believed his explanation of events. But asked if the prime minister should resign if he lied to parliament, Sunak said: “I am not going to get into hypotheticals, the ministerial code is clear on these matters.” He then walked out of the interview as he was being asked whether Johnson had his unequivocal support.

The backlash against Johnson has been driven partly by the public anger that Tory MPs heard in their constituencies at the weekend. One said activists were refusing to deliver leaflets for the forthcoming local elections because they are so demotivated. Many MPs also hinted in letters to their constituents that the prime minister may not be able to survive his in job.

Sir Charles Walker, former vice-chair of the 1922 Committee, wrote to a constituent saying: “The prime minister and the party are severely damaged in the eyes of the electorate. It remains to be seen if this situation is recoverable.”

Johnson, who will face a difficult prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, will attempt to change the national conversation by announcing the end of Plan B Covid measures.

However, Keir Starmer is expected to stick to Johnson’s predicament over gatherings in No 10 during lockdown. In an interview with the Guardian’s G2, Starmer picked holes in Johnson’s claims to have been unaware of the parties in No 10.

“Johnson’s now on his third defence. His first defence when we tackled him on this at the beginning of December was: ‘I’ve been assured there were no parties,’ and his second defence when the video came out was: ‘I’m furious there have been these parties; I’ve only just found out.’ And if the third defence is true, then obviously the first two are false – and that’s a major problem for him.”

MPs said they still do not believe Johnson has enough awareness of how much danger he is in. One said allies of the prime minister including Conor Burns and James Duddridge asked Johnson at the weekend if they could help with a whipping operation on his behalf, to try to shore up support with MPs. “He didn’t take it seriously until that moment,” one MP said. “There has been no charm offensive on his behalf. The whips have done nothing.”

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