What will it take for Conservative MPs to move against the Prime Minister?

Katie Neame
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
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Asked directly by Labour’s Catherine West during Prime Minister’s Questions whether there was a party in Downing Street on November 13th 2020, Boris Johnson replied: “No, but I am sure that whatever happened, the guidance was followed.” Yesterday, photographs emerged that appear to prove the Prime Minister lied to parliament. The pictures were taken at a leaving party for Lee Cain, Johnson’s director of communications, and appear to show the Prime Minister drinking with a group of eight people. Covid restrictions at the time allowed only two people from different households to meet indoors.

Ministers have strongly denied claims that the event was a party. Grant Shapps was rolled out on this morning’s broadcast round – as he often is when the government attempts to defend the seemingly indefensible. The Transport Secretary described the gathering as a “leaving event” and stressed that the Prime Minister was “not partying” but raising a glass in thanks to a departing colleague.

Reports emerging today that Johnson poured drinks and gathered people round for a leaving speech contradict Shapps’ account of the incident – as does the fact that others present received fixed-penalty notices from the Met. This latter point is key – how exactly can an event be a “party” for one person and not for another? London mayor Sadiq Khan told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning that the police should provide “clarity” on why the Prime Minister was not fined for the event and “explain why they reached their conclusions”.

Despite this growing public pressure on Johnson, the real power remains – as it always has – with his own party. The usual suspects have voiced their disapproval over this latest ‘partygate’ revelation – including senior backbencher Steve Baker who pointedly tweeted one of the government’s own Covid guidance posters, a photo of a woman in intensive care captioned: “Look her in the eyes and tell her you never bend the rules.” But, as of yet, there has not been a wider public movement of Tory MPs against their leader. This may still come – and soon, if Sue Gray’s report proves to be as “excoriating” as rumoured. But the key thing revealed by these new photographs is something we already knew: Johnson will not leave until he is pushed, no matter how untenable his position becomes.

These latest revelations make our focus group of 2019 Tory voters in Wakefield, carried out shortly before the publication of the photos, all the more interesting. “It’s not about parties. It’s the fact he lied – and he lied, and he lied and he lied. And we know he’s lying, he knows he’s lying and he’s laughing at us,” one participant said. Another labelled him an “absolute disgrace”, while one said he had “nothing good to say about him”. Johnson’s ability to cling to power through scandal after scandal seems legendary at this point, but the anger is building ahead of this key vote. If the Prime Minister loses the by-election, quick on the heels of the poor Tory performance in the local elections earlier this month, his Conservative colleagues may decide it is time for him to go.

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