Tory MPs warn Boris Johnson must go if fined by police, as 75% of voters say PM should quit

Exclusive: Tory MPs fear backlash from voters if PM tries to hang on

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Saturday 12 February 2022 19:12
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Cressida Dick’s resignation will ‘not affect’ Met police probe in No 10 parties, minister says

Tory MPs are warning that Boris Johnson must not fight to stay prime minister if he is fined by police over Downing Street parties.

The news comes after exclusive polling for The Independent shows the party risks a brutal backlash from voters, with a record 75 per cent of voters thinking Johnson should go if he is found guilty of breaches.

Allies of Mr Johnson have briefed that he is ready to fight to hold onto his position even if served with a fixed penalty notice, which starts at £100 but could rise to £12,000 if he is found to have breached rules at all six of the events he is alleged to have attended.

But there were fears among MPs that this could rebound disastrously on the party in upcoming elections if voters feel he has dodged punishment.

The Savanta ComRes survey shows a record 75 per cent of voters think Johnson should go if he is found guilty of breaches in investigations by the Metropolitan Police and Whitehall mandarin Sue Gray, with just 16 per cent wanting him to stay in those circumstances.

One Tory backbencher, speaking anonymously, told The Independent that the findings show clearly that the public are not ready to “forgive and forget” the flouting of coronavirus restrictions in Downing Street.

And veteran MP Sir Roger Gale said that the new polling makes clear Tories risk a backlash from voters if they support Mr Johnson’s efforts to hang on after a police fine.

“For the prime minister of the United Kingdom to be fined for breaking the law – and we are not talking about a parking ticket or something like that – and try to stay on would generate a public outcry,” said the Thanet North MP, who was the first to confirm he had submitted a letter of no confidence in Mr Johnson.

“His position, if it is not already untenable, will become completely untenable if he faces any kind of police sanction. If the parliamentary party then give him another 12 months in office by backing him in a confidence vote, I don’t think the voters will be best pleased.”

Though further confidence letters are unlikely to be submitted during next week’s recess while MPs are away from Westminster, exposure to constituents’ anger over Partygate may harden their resolve to bring the matter to a head before May’s local elections.

Pressure on the PM has mounted after Tory predecessor Sir John Major said his actions had “shredded” the UK’s reputation overseas.

Mr Johnson has sought to draw a line under the scandal with a shake-up of top personnel at 10 Downing Street, and is understood to have lined up a private lawyer to help him defend his actions if he is questioned as a suspect by police.

The prime minister is believed to be among around 50 individuals linked to Downing Street who have been sent police questionnaires about their involvement.

Outgoing Met commissioner Cressida Dick has said it is clear that “some but probably not all” will receive fines.

Today’s poll of 2,232 voters found that 49 per cent believe Mr Johnson should resign no matter what the result of the police investigation and Ms Gray’s probe, with a further 26 per cent who say he should go if found guilty and 16 per cent who want him to stay regardless of the outcome.

But crucially, a majority of Conservative supporters – unlike those from other parties – are willing to see him stay on if he is cleared of personal breaches.

Some 32 per cent of people who voted Tory in 2019 said he should resign now, but 30 per cent want him to go only if proved to have broken the rules, and 31 per cent to remain in office even if he is fined.

Among those who want the PM to resign, Partygate was the most-cited reason – mentioned by 83 per cent – followed by his perceived dishonesty (79 per cent) and his personal behaviour (77 per cent). For Conservative supporters who want him out, Mr Johnson’s lies were seen as a stronger justification for his removal than the lockdown breaches.

One Tory backbencher said the findings reflected the hostility towards the PM from constituents being felt by MPs.

“This poll will only confirm what I presume most MPs are seeing in their inboxes,” the MP told The Independent.

“It deserves long consideration over the recess week by those who have been reluctant so far to hand in their letters of no confidence. It is clear to me that the public are not going to forgive and forget, no matter what Johnson and those around him in No 10 might think.”

The chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady, must call a vote on Mr Johnson’s leadership if he receives 54 letters from MPs. Ten are known to have been sent, but the total number is believed to be significantly higher.

The poll casts doubt on whether the prime minister’s flagship “levelling up” agenda will be enough to turn his fortunes around, with almost half (46 per cent) saying it will make no difference to their living standards and 23 per cent saying it will worsen them, against just 23 per cent who think it will make things better.

Alarmingly for the PM – who has staked a lot of political capital on his ability to attract support in former Labour strongholds by redirecting investment away from London – belief in the potential of “levelling up” is strongest in the capital (36 per cent) and far lower in areas like the northwest (17 per cent), Yorkshire and the Humber (21 per cent) and West Midlands (23 per cent).

The Savanta poll shows that, from being a major electoral asset in 2019, Mr Johnson has become a significant drag on Tory support, with 45 per cent of those questioned saying they are less likely to vote Conservative if he stays.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is the most favoured candidate to replace him among both Tory supporters and the electorate at large, with 29 per cent of voters and 43 per cent of Conservatives saying they would be more likely to back the party with him at the helm.

Some distance behind the chancellor is health secretary Sajid Javid, followed by former leadership contender Jeremy Hunt and foreign secretary Liz Truss.

Savanta ComRes associate director Chris Hopkins said: “Most polling has shown for a long time that voters have felt Boris Johnson should resign over Partygate.

“If the Met Police investigation finds him guilty of breaching Covid regulations, this poll suggests that calls for him to go are likely to only intensify.

“While the PM continues to insist that voters want him to get on with the job, a looming cost of living crisis and the potential for conflict in eastern Europe does not give Johnson much respite before the Met investigation concludes, and therefore he’ll need a gargantuan effort to increase his popularity before a verdict which could signal the end for his premiership.”

The Savanta survey drives home the daunting economic and political terrain which any new leader would inherit, in a time of rising prices, tax hikes and squeezed incomes.

Some 41 per cent of those questioned said they expect their own financial situation to get worse – including 20 per cent who said it will get significantly worse – over the coming period.

Most pessimistic about their financial prospects were the over-55s, among whom half (50 per cent) expect to have to tighten their belts, against just 11 per cent who expect to see their bank balance get healthier, and those in the lowest DE social category, where 48 per cent expect tougher times and 12 per cent improvements.

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