- The influential 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers appears to have turned against Boris Johnson.
- Sue Gray’s report into partygate is likely to be seized on by those who have been snubbed, sacked or overlooked to settle scores.
- “He appears to have grabbed the revolver and repeatedly shot himself in the foot.”
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s fate is no longer in his own hands.
With a report into allegations of illegal parties in Downing Street expected to be published this week, and the constant drip-drip-drip of leaks, the prime minister’s future is to be decided by those around him.
Westminster is bracing for the verdict of Sue Gray, the senior civil servant conducting an inquiry into partygate. But she is unlikely to be the one to land the killer blow. Instead, several of Johnson’s own MPs appear to be lining up to do so – and many of them are people he has snubbed, sacked, or disappointed.
The arcanely-named 1922 Committee of backbench MPs might, once upon a time, have policed such moments of drama. The executive of the 1922 — a small group of MPs that governs the leadership process for the Conservative Party — has done it before. Back when Theresa May was facing a vote of no confidence over her much-hated form of Brexit, Number 10 worked with the exec to game the system by holding a snap poll, not giving backbenchers time to think — or the European Research Group (ERG) time to plot.
Although the exec contained some of the most ardent Brexiteers, wider party unity was more important, and May went on to win — at least until, ultimately, she resigned.
But under Johnson’s premiership these influential MPs have become some of his most vocal critics.
William Wragg, a vice-chair of the 1922 exec, accused the prime minister’s administration of bullying and harassment;he has since spoken to the Met Police about the allegations he has heard.
Nus Ghani, another vice-chair, has gone public with claims that she was sacked as a minister for her “Muslimness,”while sources named Gary Sambrook, one of the executive secretaries, as one of the so-called pork pie plotters.
Even Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 and keeper of however many no-confidence letters have been submitted, is said to have fallen out of love with Johnson’s ways.
Conservative colleagues believe each of these senior MPs have gripes with the prime minister — some points of principle, some for being overlooked for jobs. In one case, it has something to do with a disagreement with another backbencher over a bypass. Several are “getting a lot of grief” over the partygate allegations — as many others are.
In all instances, however, Johnson is blamed for the deterioration in the relationship.
One former minister told Insider: “The PM’s private assertion and belief that he has done nothing wrong and is carrying the can for others has really rankled — the ’22 get to see him privately quite regularly.”
Another former minister put it more bluntly: “He appears to have grabbed the revolver and repeatedly shot himself in the foot.”
A more junior MP added: “[Brady] doesn’t give too much away, but his disappointment on COVID has been obvious. It can’t be that often a chair of the 1922 votes against their own government.”
All this means that rather than run the vote of no confidence to save the prime minister and buy him some time, the process is being tipped against his favour, with suggestions that the timing could be strung out to allow UK newspapers “to go apeshit” about whatever is in Gray’s report, and for more damning polls to be published.
“Whereas last time, it was organized to give [Theresa] May support, this time I suspect they are less minded to,” one MP added. “I’m not sure the exec is full of FoBs — Friends of Boris.”
Members of the committee’s executive are now considering halving the minimum period between votes of no confidence, with one backbencher telling Insider he expected it to be changed without any need to put it to a vote. Brady meanwhile has made it easier for MPs to submit their letters of no confidence — they may now do it by email — meaning they no longer have to run the gauntlet of cub reporters and junior whips lingering outside his office.
The heightened hostility at the top of the 1922 Committee is just the tip of the iceberg. Johnson has become increasingly isolated, and while one MP said “people in very large numbers” still backed the prime minister, there is a distinct lack of loyalty to the man at the top.
“I can’t think of more than a dozen for whom the loyalty is more than transactional,” said one MP.
“They support him while he helps them to win, it is a very flimsy structure and easy to knock down,” said another.
It is ironic that Johnson, who is renowned for hating reshuffles and ducking difficult decisions that might make him enemies, has ended up in this situation.
Backbenchers painted a picture in which patronage of those who backed Johnson during the 2019 campaign has led to the rest of the party feeling out in the cold.
“Apart from Penny [Mordaunt] and Mims Davies, everybody in government backed Boris for leader,” one Tory MP told Insider. “The party is v. v. divided… Boris has pushed out competence, preferring loyalty.”
Another simply said: “Marmite.”
It is not just the 1922 Committee that has become home to many “malcontents,” sources say.
Select committees are also “stuffed full of competents with no loyalty to him,” meaning that when he or his ministers are hauled in to give evidence it can be a bruising experience. Indeed, the prime minister’s regular appearances before the Liaison Committee — a kind of Commons supergroup, comprising all the chairs of the select committees — are often more painful when Tory MPs are asking the questions than opposition MPs.
Prime ministers often become isolated. The relentless nature of the job and even the relatively short distance between Downing Street and the House of Commons drive a wedge between most leaders and their backbenchers.
This has been exacerbated by the pandemic, with many MPs working in their constituencies for months on end. That is also what many attribute to a more rebellious-than-usual 2019 intake.
But the whips office is often intended to act as a surrogate, smoothing over ruffled feathers when times get tense. Under Johnson and his chief whip Mark Spencer that, say MPs, has been sorely lacking.
Promoting supporters has, predictably, resulted in grumbles that he has promoted loyalty over talent. Whether this is justified or sour grapes is almost irrelevant: the end result is one of growing resentment and anger.
And so, far from having avoided creating those who would seek to bring him down, Johnson’s approach seems to have been to make more.
A “scorched earth” policy he has taken towards the Conservative Party itself has shaken many of the party faithful and he has forgotten the first rule of politics – to keep your enemies closer.
“All party leaders need to be ecumenical — Boris is the first not to be,” says a senior MP. “So the ’22 and select committees are stuffed full of the competents with no loyalty to him.”
Ultimately, the question is to what extent this isolation will harm him.
Some Tories are willing Johnson to rebuild bridges on policy, and there is now a push to have the planned hike to National Insurance – a totem for both libertarians and those who fear it will exacerbate the nascent cost of living crisis – to be reversed.
But he will need to do more to win back enough support to fend off a challenge by the summer recess when people will turn their minds to the eventual general election and whether Johnson can be the man to lead them into battle once more.
But with every allegation – the latest one an ITV report that Johnson had a birthday party, organised by his wife Carrie, with around 30 people while such gatherings were banned – that job gets harder.
With so many Conservative minds turned against him, there are few options, and even fewer friends, left for Johnson to save his premiership.