Boris Johnson’s political career might have ended there and then. Less than an hour after a Conservative MP defected to Labour and with rebel Tories circling, party grandee David Davis gravely told the prime minister: “In the name of God, go.”
Amid fevered speculation at Westminster that Johnson faced an imminent leadership challenge, Davis’ intervention threatened to be the catalyst. But during the course of that hour, something seemed to change.
To many Conservative MPs, Johnson had appeared a broken man on Tuesday when he gave an apologetic interview about his handling of the scandal over Downing Street parties during lockdown. “It felt like the end,” said one former cabinet minister.
But on Wednesday, during a rowdy session of prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons, Johnson came out fighting, cheered on by Tories galvanised by their revulsion at seeing one of their own — Bury South MP Christian Wakeford — defect to Labour.
Johnson’s resolve to keep his job — vowing to seize back Wakeford’s Lancashire constituency from Labour at the next election — seemed to change the dynamic in the Commons. “Wakeford’s defection calmed things down a bit,” admitted one critic of the prime minister.
Even Davis’ attack on Johnson, echoing the 1940 words of Conservative Leo Amery in demanding the resignation of Neville Chamberlain, did not deliver a knockout blow.
Culture secretary Nadine Dorries once said that Davis — a former reservist with the SAS special forces — was “trained to take people out”, but one Johnson loyalist brushed aside his attack on Wednesday, saying: “David’s intervention was more about him than about the PM.”
The prime minister left the Commons chamber to cries of “more” from Tories. For once, Johnson’s MPs appeared willing to comply with pleas from Conservative parliamentary business managers to come to the aid of their embattled leader. A collective Tory sense of self-preservation kicked in.
But for Johnson, this may turn out to be only a temporary reprieve. Further revelations about the “bring your own booze” Downing Street garden party that Johnson attended in May 2020, during England’s first lockdown, could again turn the Tory mood sharply against him.
Such is the atmosphere at Westminster that Tory MPs believe Johnson is doomed one moment, and saved the next. “It has been a rollercoaster,” said one Conservative adviser. “We’re still on it.”
Johnson remains in grave political danger. One senior Tory MP estimated 25 colleagues had written letters demanding a vote of no confidence in the prime minister to Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee of backbench Conservatives. Another mis-step by Johnson — or further damaging revelations about the parties scandal — could propel that total to the 54 letters required to trigger such a vote.
But on Wednesday afternoon the so-called pork pie plot to oust Johnson by Tory MPs who first entered parliament at the 2019 election — named after the Melton Mowbray constituency of Alicia Kearns, in whose office they met to discuss the prime minister’s future — looked to be faltering.
The plot has attracted widespread international attention, with French media talking of “le complot de la tourte de porc” and German newspapers reporting on the “Schweinefleisch-Pasteten-Putsch” that threatened to bring down the architect of Brexit.
One minister said the 2019 cohort of rebels were “inexperienced” and that their revolt would come to nothing, with a Tory MP adding: “They’re naive, to be honest.”
Some of the plotters were viewed by Johnson loyalists as supporters of Liz Truss, the ambitious foreign secretary who is currently in Australia. But Truss’ team insisted this was “mischief making”, with one ally saying: “Liz supports the PM.”
Tory business managers said Johnson’s confrontation with Wakeford and David Davis in the Commons had helped shore him up. “People are very hacked off with Wakeford and DD,” said one government insider. “It has helped bring people together.”
Although Johnson’s performance in the Commons chamber may have calmed his party for the moment, the sheer extent of the danger is clear to see.
Of the seven Tory MPs who have so far publicly called for Johnson to resign, only one is from the 2019 “newbie” intake of more than 100 Conservatives.
It highlights how despair over Johnson’s leadership involves longstanding Tory MPs. Davis and Sir Roger Gale, two of those who want Johnson to quit, were elected in the 1980s. Others, including former minister Caroline Nokes, entered parliament when David Cameron was premier.
The criticism of Johnson also spans ideological divides among Conservatives. “The split in the party isn’t about Brexit any more — it’s about whether you’re for or against Boris,” said one Tory MP. The debate is whether Johnson has the character and judgment to remain as prime minister.
Many MPs are keeping their counsel until they see a report by Sue Gray, a senior civil servant, into the government parties held during coronavirus restrictions.
Gray’s report is now expected to be published next week, and more Tories are then expected to speak out against Johnson. One minister said: “I am done with him. Am I actively going to do something about it now? No. Will there come a time when I do? Yes.”
One former cabinet minister who backed Johnson for the Tory leadership in 2019 said: “He did a great job getting us through Brexit, now he can clear off.”
Johnson’s spokesman said that even if 54 Tory MPs did combine to trigger a no-confidence vote, the prime minister would fight to save his job.
But Wednesday, against the odds, offered Johnson some respite. As Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle said, in an aside caught by a microphone: “What. A. Day.”