Boris Johnson’s desperate efforts to save his premiership were undermined on Saturday as one of his most loyal backbench supporters said it was now “inevitable” that Tory MPs would remove him from office over the “partygate” scandal.
In an interview with the Observer, Sir Charles Walker, a former vice-chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs, implored the prime minister to go of his own accord in the national interest, and likened the events in the Tory party to a Greek tragedy.
“It is an inevitable tragedy,” Walker said. “He is a student of Greek and Roman tragedy. It is going to end in him going, so I just want him to have some agency in that.”
Walker said that in his view Johnson had got many things right, including the handling of the vaccine rollout, and deserved to be remembered for them, rather than suffer the indignity of losing a leadership challenge.
But he said the succession of parties in Downing Street during national lockdowns had focused the anger of a traumatised country on No 10 in a way that could only be addressed if the prime minister moved aside. “It is just not going to get better,” he said.
On Saturday night, Johnson moved to shore up his operation at No 10 – which was rocked by the resignations of five key aides on Thursday – by appointing the chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, Steve Barclay, as his chief of staff and Guto Harri, who worked for him when Johnson was mayor of London, as his director of communications.
The appointment of an MP to be chief of staff is highly unusual and suggests Johnson may have faced problems in recruiting an outsider to the role at a time when many in Whitehall doubt he will last much longer in No 10.
Harri’s appointment is also a surprise as he has strongly criticised Johnson in recent years, including saying in 2018 that he would be “hugely divisive” as prime minister.
Walker is understood not to have submitted a letter of no confidence in Johnson himself. But on Saturday night Tory backbenchers who have been trying to “crunch numbers” said they thought those wanting to ditch Johnson were only 10 to 20 short of the 54 letters that need to be submitted to the chair of the 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady.
Some Conservative MPs said they believed that around 40 to 45 letters were in or pending, while another estimate that was circulating suggested the number was closer to the “early 30s”.
The Observer understands that several MPs who have yet to go public are likely to put in letters early this week, before MPs go away for a 10-day recess on Thursday. “The recess would be a time for the prime minister to regroup so there will be an incentive to get the names in before then,” said one Tory source.
The Tory MP for Wimbledon and former minister Stephen Hammond said he was “considering very carefully this weekend” whether he still has confidence in the prime minister and added that it “certainly looks like” the beginning of the end for Johnson.
If and when Brady receives 54 letters, he would then consult the prime minister on when a vote of confidence among all Conservative MPs should take place. If Johnson then failed to win a majority, he would have to stand down.
The mood has turned further against Johnson in recent days after he criticised Sir Keir Starmer in the Commons on Monday for failing to prosecute the child abuser Jimmy Savile during his time as director of public prosecutions. The baseless attack on the opposition leader led to the resignation on Thursday of Johnson’s longtime aide and head of policy at No 10, Munira Mirza, who had demanded that Johnson apologise, which he failed to do.
Investigations by the Observer show that the unfounded claims about Starmer were being promoted, before Johnson aired them, by far-right groups including the UK branch of Proud Boys, a violent white nationalist organisation labelled a terrorist entity.
After Johnson made the comments in the Commons, other notorious far-right groups, including football hooligans linked to the anti-Muslim English Defence League as well as the nationalist organisation the Traditional Britain Group, lauded him.
The allegation appears to have roots in the far right’s obsession with the unfounded suggestion that the establishment is protecting paedophiles.
On Saturday, the culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, repeatedly sought to blame Remainers for plotting against the prime minister during a round of media interviews.
However, out of the 15 Tory MPs who have so far publicly called on Boris Johnson to go, just seven of those backed remaining in the EU in the 2016 referendum. Among the Leavers who have said Johnson should go are David Davis, Andrew Bridgen and most recently the former education minister Nick Gibb.
Dorries told Times Radio: “There are a small number of voices, whether they are people who were ardent supporters of Remain, who see this as their last opportunity to reverse Brexit.”
Hammond, a Remainer, described Dorries’s remarks as “predictable rubbish from a predictable source”.
In a further blow to the prime minister, his actions during the partygate scandal have been blamed by scientists for a sharp decline in the number of people getting a vaccine booster.
Numbers of people being boosted dropped below 30,000 a day last week, with only 64.6% of the UK population over 12 years old receiving a third dose or booster so far.
Behavioural scientists said declining trust in the prime minister, as well as the belief that Omicron is mild despite its impact, were behind the fall in vaccine take-up.