Boris Johnson is facing a perilous week as Conservative MPs return to Westminster after being deluged with demands from local party members and voters that they force the prime minister out of office.
Johnson has drawn up a plan to save his job — including a clear-out of his Downing Street operation — as he attempts to pin the blame on his backroom staff for the “culture” of drinking and Covid lockdown parties.
But Tory MPs on Monday will be in a febrile mood, with some claiming that between 20-30 colleagues have submitted letters demanding a vote of no confidence in the prime minister.
“It’s not just the usual suspects,” said one former cabinet minister. One senior Tory MP said he had received almost 500 emails over the last few days, with virtually all calling for Johnson to quit. “It’s pretty bad,” he said.
Although Johnson would face a no-confidence vote if 53 Tory MPs demand one, most Tories believe the prime minister is not yet doomed. “There’s a window of survival for him, but it’s closing fast,” said one former minister.
The prime minister’s team still believe he can get back on the front foot with a raft of announcements, allowing him to stagger on towards a highly problematic round of local elections in May.
Although Downing Street insisted it did not “recognise the terms”, Johnson’s survival plan is now jokingly described in Whitehall as Operation Save Big Dog and his suite of new policies dubbed Operation Red Meat.
The expected cull of Downing Street officials and advisers will follow the publication — possibly this week — of a report into Whitehall parties by Sue Gray, a senior civil servant.
Gray’s report is expected to be highly critical of Downing Street staff and will set out in detail an apparent culture of drinking and Covid rule-breaking. But she is not expected to blame Johnson directly for this.
Oliver Dowden, Conservative chair, said he did not expect Johnson to face a follow-up probe by Lord Geidt, the adviser on ministerial standards, saying the prime minister would be held accountable by parliament.
“I don’t diminish for a second that the kind of events that we’ve seen were totally wrong,” he told Sky News on Sunday. Johnson was determined to “address the kind of culture in Downing Street that enabled something like that to happen”.
Martin Reynolds, Johnson’s principal private secretary, Dan Rosenfield, chief of staff, and some communications staff are among those who could be cleared out of Downing Street.
Most Tory MPs do not believe the Gray report will in itself condemn Johnson, although many believe the Number 10 “culture” — with reports of multiple parties during Covid lockdowns — came from the top.
“If you have a boss who plays fast and loose with the rules and gets away with it, then it’s no wonder that employees working under him think they can do the same,” one former minister said.
Keir Starmer, Labour leader, believes Johnson is trying to hide behind the Gray report. On Sunday he claimed the prime minister had “degraded the office of prime minister”, broken the law and should resign.
Dave Penman, head of the FDA civil servants’ union, said: “This isn’t a civil service culture, it’s a culture in this Number 10 under this prime minister.”
While Johnson will be applauded by many Tory MPs for shaking up what they regard as a misfiring Number 10 operation, the looming cull of advisers and officials could store up yet more trouble.
“Who’s going to go and work for him now?” asked one senior adviser. “The mood in Number 10 is already really bad. There is a fracture between the civil servants and the political end. Everyone is looking for a way out.”
The danger for Johnson in looking for scapegoats is that he widens the circle of people willing to leak damaging stories against him. “The risk is there’s death by one thousand cuts,” said one former cabinet minister.
On Sunday, Downing Street denied claims that Johnson was warned in advance that Reynolds was planning a “bring your own booze” party in the Downing Street garden on May 20, 2020, in apparent breach of England’s lockdown rules.
Johnson hopes he can ride out criticism in the Gray report and try to move on to a policy agenda to reassure his Conservative critics that he is still in control.
The key announcement is expected to be the scrapping of Covid-19 restrictions when they legally expire on January 26, which Johnson will hail as vindication of the government’s mass vaccine booster campaign.
Also in the pipeline are Michael Gove’s long-awaited “levelling-up” white paper, measures to hold down household energy bills, a freeze in the BBC licence fee and greater military involvement in controlling the flow of migrants across the English Channel in small boats.
Most Tory MPs expect Johnson to survive to deliver his “Red Meat” policies in the next few weeks, but the mood at Westminster is volatile and could shift quickly if more damaging revelations emerge.
Sir Roger Gale, Conservative MP for North Thanet and one of half a dozen Tories to call publicly for Johnson to quit, told the FT: “I’ve had some distressing emails from constituents over the past few days regarding parties.
“All of this is opening up old wounds for people, especially those who have lost loved ones and made tremendous sacrifices over lockdown.”
Some Tory MPs believe Johnson is not taking responsibility for what happened, in spite of apologising to the nation last Wednesday.
One Tory MP said Johnson, in private meetings, “appeared completely unrepentant, almost suggesting that he had done nothing wrong”. The MP added: “We were all shocked — what does that say about his character?”