On the surface Boris Johnson commands the support of nearly all his MPs. He will derive some comfort from this public display of loyalty. In terms of his future, the relationship with the Conservative parliamentary party is all that matters. Quite a lot of voters may tell pollsters that they regard Johnson as a ‘liar’. Normally calm constitutional historians and Archbishops may fume. Parts of the media and Twitter can be in uproar. But, as long as Johnson keeps his MPs on board he can carry on. The power to remove him lies with Tory MPs alone. During his post-Easter statement to the Commons, the first since he received his penalty notice for the birthday party in Number Ten, only one backbencher called on him to go.
But the surface does not tell the whole story. Over the bank holiday I phoned several Tory MPs including a few who are uneasy about their Prime Minister becoming a ‘law breaker’. They told me they would not contemplate for a single second speaking out in public against Johnson before the local elections. Their party members are spending their spare time campaigning energetically and they would not undermine such effort by condemning their party leader. They would never be forgiven by activists if they did so. In other words the May local elections are a big protective shield for Johnson and also a threat. In advance of the vote, quite a lot of Tory MPs feel they have no choice but to suspend judgement. Any critical quotes would help Labour. That does not mean their support is guaranteed if the Conservatives perform poorly in the elections.
As has been the case since ‘partygate’ erupted, the mood of the Tory doubters in the parliamentary party fluctuates on a near daily basis. There have been times when they were ready to make a move against Johnson. On other occasions they are resolved not to do so. Ukraine is another factor fuelling the changing judgements, although from my conversations this is becoming less potent compared with the fact that that important elections loom. Political parties are at their most tribal during a campaign. There is another reason why the mood constantly changes. Many of the MPs, especially those from the ‘red wall’, are new to national politics. Suddenly they face the most daunting of decisions, whether or not to remove a Prime Minister. They do not quite know what to think or what to do.
In reality the parliamentary party divides into three sections. There are the Johnson loyalists who will stick with him even if he receives more penalty notices and the Sue Gray report is damning. There is a tiny minority for now calling for him to go. In the middle there is a significant section waiting to see what happens next. That includes some ministers who are unsure how this is going to play out. All are loyal for the time being except for the significant resignation last week of Lord Woolfson, a Justice Minister. It’s easier for peers to resign when local elections are being contested. They are above the electoral fray. In some cases Johnson cannot assume that loyalty will endure across the government after the May elections.
The strategy in Number Ten, a more nimble operation after recent changes, is clear. They call for “perspective” as Johnson focuses on Ukraine, the cost of living crisis and his plans for dealing with the migrant crisis. Johnson’s every move is made with his own survival in mind. He and his new inner circle know he is not safe yet. Johnson seeks to be the indispensable ‘man of action’, visiting Kiev earlier this month and off to India this week. After his act of contrition in the Commons he delivered a different more upbeat performance to his own MPs at a private meeting, linking his plan to send migrants to Rwanda with an attack on the BBC and the Archbishop of Canterbury, suggesting they were soft on Putin. This is a classic Johnson tactic, seeking to tick several boxes in a single assertion. He knows most of his MPs approve of the Rwanda scheme, admire his approach to Putin and are angry about the BBC and the Archbishop. After the May elections Johnson plans to unveil a Queen’s Speech that will again be aimed at pleasing his MPs with bills on ‘levelling up’ and other legislative items that he will claim represents the ‘people’s priorities’.
But Johnson and his advisers are not wholly in control of events. The metropolitan police investigation continues without any indication of which party is being scrutinised and when the next penalty notices will be handed out. No one in Number Ten knows when the investigation will end. When it does the Gray report will be published and, on the basis of her interim findings published earlier this year, it will be damning. In his Commons’ statement Johnson focused only on the Number Ten birthday party. If charged for other events he will have to find new explanations. Johnson has a distinct capacity for climbing out of deep holes. But he is not entirely lacking in self-awareness. Indeed he can be introspective and melancholic at times. Mostly I hear from his allies how he is robustly determined to keep going but one did note that this crisis is getting Johnson down. With his ‘Churchillian’ sense of destiny, being the first prime ministerial law breaker was not meant to be part of the narrative.
The context is as much a key to his fate as the scale of the law-breaking. If the Conservatives do badly in the local elections and Labour soar, Tory MPs will begin to worry about whether they will lose their seats. The elections next month might not be as clear cut as that. They rarely are. But then there is the Wakefield by-election probably to be held later in the summer, a big test for both Johnson and Keir Starmer.
There are some other big themes that will dominate the coming months. The IMF has forecast that the UK economy will suffer the weakest growth out of the G7 countries. Rising inflation is destabilising for even the strongest of governments and the Johnson administration is fragile. The collapse in the standing of Rishi Sunak might have removed a leadership rival but any government needs a Chancellor with authority when the economy is weak. The dynamic between Johnson and Sunak will be pivotal. At the moment both are vulnerable. Usually one has been in a stronger position than the other. Sunak’s spring statement was framed when the Chancellor was at his most assertive as Johnson fought for his political life. In the past Johnson’s deeper interventionist instincts have tended to win out because he was in a strong enough position to prevail over his Chancellor. For now at least they dance together after Sunak decided to stay on rather than resign after receiving his penalty notice and with Johnson currently too weak to sack him. If Johnson emerges safely from ‘partygate’ he might be tempted to appoint another chancellor, but none of the options are straightforward. The likes of Liz Truss and Sajid Javid share Sunak’s fiscal conservatism. Javid’s tax affairs are also attracting media interest.
For whoever is Prime Minister and Chancellor this autumn, the budget will be a moment of great significance for the economy and the future of this government. There could well be a further economic statement from Sunak this summer although he is keen to avoid one, wanting to focus on his budget and not give the impression of ‘panic’ reactions before then. Sunak has spent some time studying what happened in the 1970s when inflation raged more wildly than now. He noted that there were endless emergency budgets that tended to fuel further panic.
Even so the autumn is a long way off. There will be many twists and turns before then.