Boris Johnson struck a surprisingly breezy tone in parliament on Tuesday as he confirmed the Metropolitan Police was launching an investigation into possible Covid lawbreaking at the heart of his government.
“I welcome the Met’s decision to conduct its own investigation,” the prime minister told MPs, saying this would give the public clarity about allegations of Downing Street parties held during coronavirus lockdowns “and help to draw a line under matters”.
Normally the idea of a police investigation into Number 10 would be a matter of intense concern for a prime minister, but as one Conservative MP put it: “This could be a lifeline for Johnson.”
When Johnson stood at the House of Commons despatch box at lunchtime on Tuesday, the prospect of the Met investigation stretching out for weeks or even months initially appeared to offer him an unlikely respite from the so-called “partygate” scandal.
Earlier paymaster-general Michael Ellis told MPs that the terms of reference for Sue Gray, the senior civil servant asked by Johnson to investigate government parties held during Covid-19 restrictions, stipulated her work “may be paused” if matters were referred to police.
But over the course of the day it transpired the Met had no objection to Gray pressing ahead and publishing her report, while she was equally keen to get on with it, according to people briefed on the situation. Suddenly things looked a lot less bright for Johnson.
The prime minister now faces an imminent and critical report by Gray, as well as the threat of police action hanging over his Downing Street operation for weeks to come.
Sir Keir Starmer, Labour leader, has told colleagues this scenario would be the best of all worlds for the opposition party. “The best thing for us is to see him stagger on wounded,” he told one ally.
But Angela Rayner, Starmer’s deputy, publicly called for Johnson to quit. “With Boris Johnson’s Downing Street now under police investigation, how on earth can he think he can stay on as prime minister?” she asked. Tory MPs were making a similar calculation.
David Davis, the former Brexit secretary who last week called for Johnson to quit, said: “With the police now investigating, this nightmare gets even worse.”
Another senior Tory MP said: “Every time I think it can’t get any worse, it does.” A Conservative fundraiser emailed Tory donors to say simply: “Thank you for sticking with us. I know it isn’t easy right now.”
Rebel Conservative MPs first elected to parliament in 2019, who last week engaged in an abortive plot against the prime minister, were said to be meeting again to discuss tactics.
One rebel said he expected a coalition of disaffected younger MPs from so-called red wall constituencies in northern England to join forces with disillusioned older Tory rightwingers to trigger a vote of no confidence in Johnson. A total of 54 MPs must request a vote in letters to Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee of backbench Conservatives, for one to happen.
One Tory MP from the 2019 intake said: “It’s appalling. We are supposed to be a serious government. Instead the police are investigating whether the PM broke the very rules that he set.”
With the threat of a leadership challenge again confronting Johnson, the prime minister attempted to rally MPs with a sombre Commons statement on the Ukraine crisis.
Ministers who back Johnson, including culture secretary Nadine Dorries and environment secretary George Eustice, attempted to downplay the significance of the latest partygate allegations: a surprise birthday gathering held for Johnson in Number 10 in June 2020, during England’s first lockdown.
Sir Edward Leigh, a Tory grandee and Johnson supporter, told MPs: “When Europe stands on the brink of war and there is a cost of living crisis, can we please have a sense of proportion over the prime minister being given a piece of cake in his own office by his own staff?”
But Gray’s report is expected to shine a light on an apparent drinking and party culture at the centre of government, including in Number 10, in spite of Covid rules that banned such gatherings.
There were fears in government circles that Gray may identify some parties not already in the public domain, reinforcing a sense of imminent danger to the prime minister.
Johnson spent Tuesday afternoon in meetings with Tory MPs from across the party, trying to shore up his position.
He has vowed to fight to save his job in the event of a confidence vote and past experience of such contests has shown that Conservative MPs are reluctant to deliver a knockout blow to their leader.
However, former prime ministers Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Theresa May were all wounded by votes on their leadership. Johnson’s authority could be badly shaken, even if he were to secure a majority in a confidence vote.
Under current Conservative rules, set by the 1922 committee, if Johnson were to survive such a vote, he could not be challenged for another year.
But senior Tories said the 1922 executive retained “the sovereign right” to change the rules to allow another contest within a 12-month period, if it were deemed to be in the national interest.
Some Conservative MPs believe a bloody fight is about to begin. “Will he go of his own accord?” asked one Tory MP, referring to Johnson. “Of course not. He’s just spent thousands on decorating the Downing Street flat. He’ll go kicking and screaming.”
Additional reporting by Sebastian Payne and Jim Pickard