Boris Johnson secured a fragile truce with his own party after he was told to quit by a senior former Conservative minister and a Tory MP defected to Labour.
Christian Wakeford, MP for Bury South, crossed the floor of the House of Commons to join the opposition Labour party, blindsiding Johnson just minutes before prime minister’s questions. But the defection also rallied many restive Tory MPs behind their leader.
MPs said Johnson had bought himself a reprieve until next week, when an inquiry into the “Partygate” scandal involving Downing Street events that broke coronavirus restrictions will conclude. The gatherings are being investigated by Sue Gray, a senior civil servant, although Number 10 is also braced for more revelations about the parties in coming days.
With some of his critics in the party pushing for a vote of no confidence in him, Johnson attempted to rally support by ending all remaining Covid restrictions in England, including mandatory face masks and working from home guidance.
A total of 54 Tory MPs must send letters to Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee of Conservative backbenchers, in order to trigger the vote of no confidence. Senior MPs think around 30 letters have been sent.
Johnson’s tense relationship with MPs was underscored by David Davis, the ex-Brexit secretary, who said he had spent weeks defending Johnson from constituents angry about Downing Street parties held in lockdown but had concluded he should resign.
He told the Commons: “I will remind him of a quotation which may be familiar to his ear — Leo Amery to Neville Chamberlain: ‘You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. In the name of God, go’.”
Davis’s intervention at the end of prime minister’s questions came after Wakeford’s defection, which had a unifying effect on MPs. Government insiders claimed that letters of no-confidence in the prime minister had been withdrawn. One said: “The rebels have overplayed their hand, they don’t have the numbers to topple Boris.”
One Tory MP said: “Wakeford calmed things down. His defection made people think: ‘This is all going a bit mad’.”
Some of the plotters against Johnson — including a group of 2019 intake MPs behind an effort dubbed the “pork pie plot”, a reference to the Melton Mowbray constituency of ringleader Alicia Kearns — said their stance on removing the prime minister had not changed.
“He’s undermining everything the party has achieved,” one said. Rebels claimed that another 10 no-confidence letters were submitted on Wednesday.
Johnson’s allies believe he may still face a no-confidence vote after the publication of the Partygate investigation. Johnson confirmed Gray’s report would be published next week.
One senior official said she was expected to submit “a several-page conclusion of topline findings to Downing Street, which would then be made public”.
Gray is also said to be aware of the constitutional implications of her report and the consequences for the civil service if it plays a role in defenestrating Johnson. One Whitehall official said: “Sue is an intelligent person and she is acutely aware of the political pressure on her and for the whole civil service.”
If a no-confidence vote is triggered before her report is published, it may not take place immediately. One Tory MP close to discussions said it would take longer than when a contest was triggered against Theresa May in 2018. Then, the confidence vote was held within 24 hours.
“It would not make any sense to hold the vote until after Sue Gray has reported,” he said. “After the inquiry, some MPs may wish to withdraw their letters, as well as others who might submit them, depending on what her report says about the prime minister.”