Boris Johnson is engaged in a desperate fightback to save his political life, after a ferocious attack from one of the Conservatives’ most senior former ministers and the defection of one of its newest MPs failed to fell him.
In remarkable scenes in the House of Commons, the former cabinet minister David Davis stunned MPs with a call to the prime minister to “in the name of God, go”.
Labour celebrated as Red Wall MP Christian Wakeford from Bury South crossed the floor, branding the prime minister “disgraceful” for his handling of allegations of lockdown-busting parties in 10 Downing Street.
And representatives of families bereaved by coronavirus accused Mr Johnson of “removing public health protections in the hope of saving his own skin”, as he announced that plan B restrictions will be scrapped in England from 27 January.
But the dramatic interventions did not trigger the flood of letters from MPs needed to force a confidence vote in Mr Johnson. While up to 20 discontented Tories were understood to have submitted letters to the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady, none broke cover to declare their positions publicly.
Senior Tories told The Independent that the developments may have helped shore up Mr Johnson’s position at least until the publication of Whitehall mandarin Sue Gray’s report into “partygate” – now expected next week – as wavering MPs think twice about appearing disloyal.
There was speculation that even if Sir Graham receives the necessary 54 letters in the coming days, he may delay a vote until the report is published in order to ensure MPs have the information they need.
But a member of the group of younger MPs who arrived in parliament in 2019 urged colleagues not to wait to submit their letters.
“You have to make a change as soon as you can,” the Tory MP told The Independent. “I don’t think colleagues should think of the Sue Gray report should be the answer, the silver bullet. You don’t need Sue Gray to tell you what a party is.
“I’ve made my mind up. My constituents have made their mind up and are crying out for a change.”
One former cabinet member said Mr Davis’s assault on the PM was “courageous, principled and right”. And a backbench Tory made clear he had no faith in Johnson’s claim not to have realised that a drinks event in the No 10 garden was a party, telling The Independent: “It’s like going to a brothel and claiming you didn’t realise that the women there are selling themselves for sex.”
But friends of the former Brexit secretary said that his strike against the PM was not co-ordinated with like-minded MPs, including some who had spoken to Mr Davis within the last few days and had no inkling of what he was planning.
Meanwhile, there was vitriol directed at Mr Wakeford from some of the other members of the 2019 group, who sought to distance themselves from the so-called pork pie plot to oust Johnson. Ashfield’s Lee Anderson branded the defector “Wokeford” and telling GB News: “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”
Mr Johnson came under ferocious assault from Labour in a stormy session of prime minister’s questions a day after an interview in which he claimed not to have been told that the rose garden party he attended on 20 May 2020 was against Covid rules.
With his new MP sitting on the Labour benches behind him, Sir Keir Starmer denounced him as “out of touch, out of control, out of ideas and soon to be out of office”.
But the PM appeared buoyed by loud cheering from the Tory benches, which were packed with vocal supporters just a week after Conservative MPs watched a forlorn Johnson apologise in gloomy silence. Reeling off lists of achievements which he said his administration had delivered, he said those challenging him about parties were “wasting people’s time”.
Just as it seemed Mr Johnson may have won a stay of execution with his combative rejection of opposition calls for his resignation, Mr Davis caught the eye of Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle and rose to deliver what he clearly hoped would be a fatal blow.
Unleashing a quote first used by Oliver Cromwell to dismiss quarrelling parliamentarians and later deployed to despatch Neville Chamberlain during the darkest days of the Second World War, Mr Davis told his former Brexit comrade: “You have sat there too long for all the good you have done. In the name of God, go.”
The long-serving MP later said he had been prompted to act by Mr Johnson’s TV interview on Tuesday.
“I have been supporting him up to now,” said Mr Davis. “I voted for him (as leader) but I expect leadership. Leadership means shouldering responsibility even when it is blame and he didn’t do it.”
Downing Street soon afterwards declared that Mr Johnson will fight any confidence vote, and intends to remain in place to lead Tories into the next general election, expected in 2023 or 2024.
His press secretary confirmed he was meeting a string of Tory MPs for private talks in a bid to shore up support, but insisted that he was doing so by focusing on his record of delivering Brexit, investing in the country and handling the Covid pandemic.
And supportive MPs were sent out to defend Johnson, with Andrew Rosindell saying the public want him to “get on and do the job”. Health secretary Sajid Javid told a Downing Street press conference he was backing the PM, whose leadership he said had been “vindicated” by the retreat of the Omicron variant of Covid and the lifting of plan B restrictions.
And leader of the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg dismissed Mr Davis as a “lone wolf”, telling Channel 4 News: “No one would call David a lightweight, he’s a very serious political figure, but his comments today were too theatrical.”
One former minister told The Independent: “Paradoxically, today’s events may have been a blessing in disguise for Boris. People are fixating on the 54 letters, but my feeling is that even if they arrive he could still survive the vote, because there isn’t a stand-out candidate to replace him.”
To remove Johnson from the Tory leadership, more than half of the parliamentary party – some 180 MPs – would have to vote against him in a confidence vote. After Wednesday’s display of support in the Commons, allies were confident that this is a hurdle he can surmount, as his predecessor Theresa May did in 2018.
But a former ally said that the mere fact of vote being called would be fatal for him in the longer run.
“It will be just a matter of time before he goes,” the MP told The Independent. “That is the lesson of what happened to Theresa May, to John Major and to Margaret Thatcher.”
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies