Boris Johnson will on Wednesday embark on a fight for political survival, as Tory MPs claimed they were on the verge of triggering a no-confidence vote in the prime minister over alleged lockdown parties in Downing Street.
Johnson will attempt to contain the rebellion by announcing a lifting of Covid-19 restrictions in England — a move popular with Tory MPs — but one ally said there was a “50-50 chance” he could soon face a confidence vote.
The prime minister is confronting a new threat from Conservative MPs elected in 2019, many from so-called red wall seats in northern England who met on Tuesday to discuss the prime minister’s future following the “partygate” scandal.
Downing Street is eyeing the prospect of a northern rebellion nervously, and some rebel Tory MPs claim they will soon have the necessary 54 letters required to trigger a confidence vote in Johnson. “It’s close,” said one.
Party whips do not deny that Johnson’s future could soon be on the line, but one cabinet minister loyal to the PM insisted that the red wall rebels would not succeed, saying: “They are inexperienced. It won’t amount to much.”
Johnson is under increasing pressure over his attendance at a “bring your own booze” Downing Street garden party during England’s first lockdown in May 2020, with some MPs refusing to accept his claim that he thought it was a “work event”.
On Wednesday, Johnson will play what is widely seen as his trump card as he tries to engineer his political escape, setting out plans to end many Covid-19 restrictions in England when they legally expire on January 26.
Work-from-home guidance and the use of Covid passes for entry to mass events are expected to end, while the cabinet will on Wednesday consider the future role of face masks in public places.
Johnson will hail the lifting of most restrictions — some requirements such as self-isolation for people with coronavirus will remain — as a vindication of the mass Covid vaccine booster campaign that he has overseen.
There have been improving trends recently in Covid infection rates and hospital admissions after the Omicron coronavirus variant swept through the country.
On Tuesday, 94,432 new cases were reported in the latest 24-hour period, a fall of 22 per cent from the same day last week. Covid-related hospital admissions are falling in every region of England, according to the latest NHS data.
The lifting of Covid restrictions will be welcomed by many Tory MPs but, at prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Johnson will face another grilling over the lockdown party.
His problems intensified after claims by Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser, that the prime minister had been warned in advance that the Number 10 garden party would break England’s lockdown rules in May 2020.
The prime minister looked dejected in a Sky television appearance, saying: “Nobody told me that what we were doing was against the rules, that the event in question was something that was not a work event.”
The interview appeared to worsen the febrile mood among MPs. One member of the government described Johnson’s interview as “brutal” and “hard to watch”. Another senior Tory said: “He looked broken. You could see it in his eyes.”
Lord Gavin Barwell, the chief of staff to former prime minister Theresa May, said Johnson’s comments were “hopeless”. He added: “Nobody should have needed to tell him that lots of people having drinks together outside was against the rules. He made the rules.”
Johnson attempted to assuage the growing rebellion with an impromptu meeting on Tuesday evening with members of the 2019 intake.
One MP present said, “I still support him [Johnson],” adding that they were prepared to wait for the outcome of the report into government parties by senior civil servant Sue Gray before making a decision on whether to submit a letter.
Another said that Johnson pleaded with MPs present on how to fix the situation by asking: “What do I need to do?”
Rishi Sunak, chancellor of the exchequer, and Dominic Raab, deputy prime minister, indicated that Johnson would have to resign if he was found to have misled parliament about Downing Street parties held during coronavirus restrictions in 2020 and 2021.
Raab said that lying to parliament would “normally” be a resigning matter. Sunak called for people to await the Gray report but said that “the ministerial code is clear” on the matter of lying. Sunak walked out of a television interview when pressed on the prime minister’s position.
About 20 Conservative MPs who entered parliament at the 2019 election gathered to discuss Johnson’s future, and one of those present said: “The mood was pretty bleak.”
Christian Wakeford, Tory MP for Bury South, said he had submitted a letter asking for a vote of no confidence in Johnson to Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee of backbench Conservatives.
One senior Conservative said: “I’m convinced that more have gone in and we’re up to about 30.” Some believe that more letters will go in after the Gray report is complete.
Gray’s report on government parties may not be published until next week, according to people familiar with the situation, as her team of investigators is struggling to deal with a continual drip of allegations. Cummings confirmed that he will be interviewed by Gray.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Hunt, the former Tory minister who challenged Johnson for the party leadership in 2019, hinted in an interview with The House Magazine that he would run again in a future contest.
Additional reporting by Oliver Barnes in London