nother morning, another raft of parties in No 10 during restrictions. This time, in April 2021, the Prime Minister didn’t attend — he was at Chequers — but his head of operations allegedly DJ-ed the night away in the basement, a suitcase of booze was wheeled in, others caroused in the garden, even breaking little Wilf’s swing.
And the next morning the Queen sat alone at the funeral of Prince Philip in Windsor, not a single family member beside to console her. Can Boris Johnson survive the weekend, never mind the next months, is what we are now asking ourselves.
To any normal punter, surely this is the moment he resigns? Any CEO would. He set the tone in the first lockdown with his garden “work” party. There was clearly an unspoken rule that got stretched again and again.
He also joined in another garden cheese and wine do later in May 2020. All the power, none of the responsibility: that’s what this looks like. If his MPs were livid on Wednesday, the fury rocking WhatsApps groups today will have reached a tipping point.
Beneath the anger, however, there will be another, more calculated response: can any of Johnson’s likely successors win as big as him and help them keep their seats? No Tory candidate is exactly screaming guaranteed electoral success, and this will be one of the only advantages Boris can cling to.
Sue Gray’s inquiry next week is likely to spread the blame wide, including these latest revelations. If the PM survives the weekend, with more apologies and the public and press distracted by the Prince Andrew revelations, he can buy time to woo his mutinous MPs from the cliff edge.
It’s not going to be an easy ride. As one former Tory minister told me yesterday, “I’ve always said he will survive. But my position is now a minority one. The MPs I speak to think he is toast. That it’s just a matter of time. But… they can’t agree on a successor. And most importantly it’s incredibly hard to remove a sitting prime minister if he doesn’t want to go.”
And Johnson does not want to go —what, suffer the ignominy of a shorter tenure than Theresa May? Fifty-four letters to the backbench 1922 Committee are a lot to gather when MPs will have a secondary concern: if they get rid of him, they can’t know what will follow.
“The situation might end up worse. They might not be the right person for the voters, nor be the right person for the party,” says David Cameron’s former communications chief Craig Oliver, who recently launched his aptly named podcast, Desperately Seeking Wisdom. “It’s about timing as well. It’s a long way until the next election.
We are in a volatile situation, with a lot of pieces for the next person to pick up.” In other words, how long do you give a successor to bed in with voters, when equally, too much time could leave them room to mess up?
Gaining the trust and votes of that Red Wall demographic is also no easy task. Take Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, left. She would probably have more chance of gaining the support of the Red Wall MPs than Rishi Sunak. He does impress here and internationally and the fact he doesn’t drink suddenly seems an advantage.
But the Chancellor, who became an MP in 2015, “also still feels a bit wet behind the ears to some,” says one former Treasury adviser. They think he also has a wealth issue to overcome. “ But does Truss really have the charisma of Johnson on the doorstep? I doubt it,” she notes.
While another Tory loyalist dismissively says of both: “Aping Thatcher (Truss) or whacking up taxes (Sunak) isn’t exactly a great start. And Boris has held that Red Wall, which is more than either of them can say.” Their tone may have changed this morning.
Again, this weekend contenders, from Michael Gove to Jeremy Hunt, will be urgently talking to backbenchers and donors, plotting how to position themselves, who to align with just in case. One rumour doing the rounds is that Sunak and Hunt are in discussions to team up. The interesting duo would be Truss and Sunak, suggests another, with Truss as Chancellor — a highly unlikely outcome.
As the PM broods over these coming nights, staring at that wallpaper, I can’t help recalling last May when I dined with two very senior Tories, both loudly proclaiming that Johnson would rule for 10 years. What do I hear today? “He’s been exposed for what he is. He believes in nothing; his premiership was never going to amount to anything — and certainly won’t now.”
Burgeoning power of ERG leaves PM in their hands
Meanwhile, the power of the 20 to 30-strong European Research Group continues to grow. “They are a proper caucus now,” says one alarmed Tory.
With the PM so utterly weakened by his miscalculations (failing time and again to lance the boil), it would not take much effort for the ERG to align with other disgruntled MPs (panicked newbies and those thrown to the backbenches) to reach the 54 letters required to unseat him.
He will be in their power. Expect lowered taxes before April and rolled back green levies. The PM will calculate that it’s better to throw away the votes of urbanites — and his own green agenda — and keep happy those closer to home.
The same will apply to any successor. The ERG rules.
Queen’s duty grows heavier — and more impressive
Can family matters get any worse for our Queen? Her two grandsons split apart, one removed to California. Her husband dead. And then she has to take the deeply humiliating decision to strip her disgraced son Prince Andrew, left, of his royal titles and patronages.
With each drama, her own stoicism and duty to her role makes every bit player on the public stage look ever less impressive.