We are all familiar with the final stages of American gangster movies. Facing prosecution and prison, the accomplices and henchmen eventually talk. With nothing left to lose, their testimonies help to bring down the once imperious and untouchable kingpin.
Tories still loyal to the Prime Minister fear something similar will happen as the Downing Street parties are investigated. Senior officials, who once expected promotions, peerages or embassies in important countries, face the most ignominious of departures: sacked amid a wall of public criticism and anger.
The PM offers them no protection. Indeed, he considers their demise necessary to save his premiership. So what, other than unrequited loyalty, and perhaps a promise of compensation in the distant future, will stop Martin Reynolds and other Downing Street officials incriminating Boris Johnson? Why, if the accusations Johnson faces are true, would they not assert or even prove that the Prime Minister broke Covid rules knowingly at the notorious garden party and, perhaps, on other occasions and in different places?
Those Conservative MPs who have not yet submitted letters requesting a vote of no confidence are waiting for the Sue Gray report. Some hope to find in the report reason to grant a reprieve. Some know already that they will send their letters once the report is published. Some await the Prime Minister’s response: one false step, they say, and he will be finished.
Let us assume that the report will stop short of branding the PM a liar. Gray is, like Sir Christopher Geidt, who investigated the financing of the Downing Street flat refurbishment, a custodian of “the system” who will worry about the consequences of an unelected official bringing down a prime minister. But let us also assume, as seems likely, that the report will say enough for those sceptical of Johnson’s honesty to conclude that the PM flouted the rules he imposed on others and then lied about doing so – to the public and to Parliament.
Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee, will quickly receive the requisite 54 letters, and a vote of no confidence will be held. Whatever the bravado from No 10 – “bring it on” has been the message – this will pose a moment of mortal danger for Johnson.
Loyalists who insist that the difficulty in getting to 54 shows that the PM will easily win the vote are wrong. There are many MPs who have not agitated for a vote, but will, when asked the question, still vote against Johnson. There are, according to senior MPs, junior ministers who will resign from the Government to make the case against the Prime Minister. There are other members of the Government – including perhaps in Cabinet – who will vote against Johnson whether they resign or not.
While all the attention to date has focused on the 2019 intake of MPs, senior parliamentarians will come out forcefully against Johnson. Some may form a deputation to tell the PM to resign. And Johnson can win but still lose: if 100 MPs vote against him, for example, he will be unable to continue for long.
This is high stakes stuff. Some MPs and ministers – privately scathing about Johnson and his performance for months – have started to equivocate. The consequences of removing a leader who won a landslide victory only two years ago are giving them pause for thought. MPs consulting senior activists have found that their associations are divided between those grateful to Johnson for delivering Brexit and those who are appalled by his reported behaviour.
Collective indecision, therefore, may yet save the PM. Here, the mooted rule change – in which a second vote on Johnson’s future might be held within six months, rather than a year – might not hinder but help him, as it would give wavering MPs the confidence to stick with him knowing it need not be a final decision.
Regardless, the situation could hardly be more perilous for the Conservative Party. The polls show the public has concluded that Johnson lied. This is not a policy error, or operational failure, from which a government can quickly recover. Voters have judged the PM’s personal ethics, and their judgment will remain fixed. Every day Johnson remains leader, more Tory MPs and ministers – and the party overall – will have to defend him, and the public will conclude that they are as deceitful as he is.
And the poison is already spreading. For Johnson has completely lost his authority in his own party. The support of Cabinet ministers is contingent, they openly say, on what Sue Gray reports. Never known for administrative competence or moral seriousness, now Johnson is no longer popular, he is no longer powerful. His authority – once derived from political strength and the dignity of the office he holds – is shot.
In defending Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg has personally insulted Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Tories. Fellow Cabinet ministers responded by criticising Rees-Mogg. The police are speaking to William Wragg, a backbencher, after alleged ministers and whips have blackmailed and threatened rebel MPs. Nusrat Ghani says she was sacked as a minister, government whips told her, because of her “Muslimness”. The Chief Whip – by convention silent in the media – denies what Ghani says. Downing Street is undermining its own whips’ office by establishing an unofficial, parallel whipping operation, led by ministers who are supposed to be running departments.
The Government, one senior Conservative says, is beginning to resemble the worst characteristics of the Prime Minister: chaotic and messy, secretive and shifty, while many Tory MPs – not nearly the majority, it should be said – are turning against one another. The collapse in Johnson’s authority is causing widespread political dysfunction and further danger for the Conservatives.
Johnson, who famously grew up wanting to be world king, has discovered, like Richard II, that the crown he wears is hollow and rounds mortal temples. Whether it takes days, weeks or months for the pin to bore through his castle walls is no longer up to him. His future will be decided by his party – a party that considers itself tainted by his leadership.