Conservative MPs head off for their half term break in a state of bewildered exhaustion. One senior backbencher told me she had never yearned to be away from Westminster as much as she did now, even if only for a few days’ respite. She is typical. Most Conservative MPs have still not decided whether to act against Boris Johnson or when to do so. Businesses must plan for the next few months without any clear idea who will be Prime Minister by the summer. Only Conservative MPs have the power to remove Johnson and most agonise about what is going on without knowing what to do next.
Despite this unavoidable haziness, we still know quite a lot. Johnson is determined to stay on. He will not go voluntarily. Amidst the dark chaos, he continues to enjoy being Prime Minister and has no intention of giving up. His sense of history and Etonian destiny mean he will not want to depart as a Prime Minister forced out of office for setting rules, breaking them, and lying about doing so. Johnson is not a natural leader, but he has two of the qualities required of leadership. He is resilient and ruthlessly competitive, bouncing back from nightmarish situations as if they had never happened, a lifelong pattern.
Most immediately he has tried to make the most of the delay in the publication of the Gray report, reconfiguring Number Ten and conducting a mini reshuffle. Every move has one sole objective, to buttress Johnson’s position in relation to his parliamentary party. There was a lot of speculation about whether his new chief of staff, Steve Barclay, could do the job as well as fulfilling his other responsibilities. For now, Johnson is not interested in the practicalities. He has chosen a solid technocrat, a Brexiteer, and an MP who Tory backbenchers will be able to see in the House of Commons. That is the key, convincing his MPs they will matter more under the new Number Ten regime. The same considerations apply to the appointment of Andrew Griffith, his new head of policy. He is also an MP. In theory at least there can be more of a dialogue with other MPs over policy development.
Johnson has been told MPs found his old operation far too distant. He is trying to make it less so in the hope that this will deter them from toppling him.
The mini reshuffle was carried out with similar calculations in mind. The former Chief whip, Mark Spencer, was unpopular with many Conservative MPs. He was replaced by the smoother Chris Heaton-Harris. In addition, Brexit supporting Tory MPs want to hear more about the benefits of Brexit. The Brexiteer Johnson loyalist, Jacob Rees Mogg, becomes minister for ‘Brexit Opportunities’.
The same objective applies to any move with policy implications. Johnson’s statement in relation to the lifting of all Covid restrictions this week was revealing. In effect he announced at the start of Prime Minister’s Questions that he would be making an announcement on Monday week when MPs returned to Westminster, one that would delight his libertarian wing. He told his MPs in advance that this was what he planned to do in the hope that the prospect of ‘Covid freedom’ would keep them quiet until then. None of the top scientists, nor the devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were told in advance of what Johnson was going to say. The words were aimed at getting him through the next week or so. The formal statement on Monday week, he hopes, will give him another boost.
The sudden change in the political dynamics of this government is unprecedented. Up until the late autumn Johnson was the most powerful and omnipotent Prime Minister of recent decades. From Brexit to HS2 he took the key decisions, without much scrutiny or criticism. Conservative MPs felt ignored but Johnson felt no need to consult them. Now it is Conservative MPs that call the tunes.
As part of Number Ten’s campaign to save Johnson, his new media team is briefing journalists to expect a bigger ministerial reshuffle this summer. Every briefing is aimed at giving the impression that Johnson is in charge and planning for the future. But note in the mini reshuffle this week no one was sacked. A few ministers were moved but Johnson is too weak to risk sacking ministers in case they become part of the embryonic insurrectionary mood on the backbenches. If he survives to the summer I doubt if he will be in a strong enough position to carry out a big reshuffle, dropping ministers to bring in more of the doubting MPs. Still, he will be talking up such a prospect in private during his discussions with parliamentary colleagues. The power of patronage is his most potent lever.
Meanwhile every move Rishi Sunak makes is seen through the prism of a possible leadership vacancy. The reality is more nuanced. Here is one example of several. This week when there was a delay in the hugely important announcement over how the additional cash for the NHS would be spent, there was frenzied talk about Sunak blocking publication in order to disrupt Johnson’s attempts to stay in Number Ten. This was not the case. There is considerable anxiety in the Treasury about the tax rise this April. Sunak wants to show that every penny will be well spent. He seeks more robust targets to show that that the rise in National Insurance is worthwhile. As part of their mood of fearful bewilderment Conservative MPs are increasingly restive about the tax increase. If there were to be a vote on it now, I suspect it would be defeated. Sunak is under considerable pressure to deliver in terms of speedy, tangible improvements in the NHS. The Treasury interventions were not a clunky attempt to stop Johnson from making announcements on the NHS.
But Sunak and others know they might be candidates in a leadership contest and make calculations accordingly. Sunak has many admirers, from senior journalists to former cabinet ministers. He is not short of advice. He was advised that he needed to distance himself from Johnson’s comments about Keir Starmer and Jimmy Saville. He did so, to the anger of Johnson’s loyalists, by declaring that he would never have said such words. Here is an example of Sunak’s tricky position. As his most senior cabinet minister he does not want to become fatally contaminated by Johnson’s conduct, but any distancing can seem self-interested and disloyal. Quite a few Chancellors, seen as the likely next Prime Minister, failed to get to Number Ten. Sunak does not want to be on that list of prime ministers we never had.
For now Johnson has the public support of his entire cabinet. Only when Margaret Thatcher lost the backing of cabinet ministers did she resign in the autumn of 1990. Meanwhile most Conservative MPs are keeping their heads down. Those that publicly back Johnson on the media are fairly limited. Think of the number of times Michael Fabricant has been rolled out to support Johnson. This does not mean that the majority has decided to remove the Prime Minister. It does mean they have not made up their minds.
The next key moment is the publication of the full Gray report and the outcome of the police investigation. In a competitive field this will be the most daunting junction in Johnson’s career. Based on her ‘update’ alone, Gray’s full report will be damning. All Johnson’s energies are planning for this next development. He will insist that the lessons are already learnt, that Number Ten is changed radically. As a former political columnist, he knows that stories can “blow over”, a phrase he has deployed in conversations with some Tory MPs. But, in his desperation to remain in office, he misreads the significance of the Gray report combined with the police investigation. No one knows for sure but a lot of Tory MPs I speak to assume that either the police/Gray report or the May local elections will be the moment when a vote of confidence is triggered. Such a vote could happen at any time. No one is fully in control of the dissenters in the parliamentary party. But it would be harder for Johnson to win that vote of confidence after the Gray report. In my view the outcome of the police investigation and the Gray report are Johnson’s moment of maximum danger, much more so than the May local elections.
For businesses there are important staging posts to come in policy terms, not least Sunak’s statement on the fiscal and wider economic outlook next month. Yet much is on hold. Johnson is suddenly weak and a few cabinet ministers, including Sunak, are becoming more muscular. For certain Johnson will never be as strong as he was from December 2019 to the autumn of last year. From now on this will be a different government, whoever leads it.