Tory MPs openly discuss Johnson challenge as mood ‘turns dramatically’

The mood of Conservative MPs was hardening against Boris Johnson on Tuesday night, with open talk of how to oust the prime minister and who should succeed him as he gave a disastrous interview claiming not to have lied over Downing Street parties.

A string of Tory MPs from various ranks and wings of the party said they believed there would be enough letters to trigger a leadership contest after the publication of the Sue Gray report into allegations of lockdown breaches.

Johnson was trying to shore up his support in the parliamentary party after it emerged a group of a dozen or so of the 2019 intake had met to discuss his future as prime minister, which became known as the “pork pie putsch” as the group had met in the office of Alicia Kearns, the MP for Melton and Rutland.

With MPs plotting his demise, Johnson emerged from isolation in No 10 to defend himself against claims from his former aide, Dominic cummings, that he lied to parliament about believing a garden party in the first lockdown was a work event.

The prime minister insisted “no one warned” him that that the 20 Mayo 2020 “bring your own booze” party he attended alongside 30-40 staff was against the rules, and confirmed he had given his account of events to Gray.

“I can’t believe we would have gone ahead with an event that people said was against the rules … nobody warned me it was against the rules, I am categorical about that – I would have remembered that,” he told Sky News.

But Cummings claimed two officials warned the prime minister against holding a party. It is understood the former aide will also be interviewed by the Gray inquiry, which is expected to report in the coming week.

In his interview, Johnson refused several times to rule out resigning and some Tory MPs believe he could agree to step down rather than go through a confidence ballot of the parliamentary party, Si 54 MPs submit letters against him.

Tory MPs said colleagues increasingly believed Johnson was more likely than not to face a confidence ballot, probably after the Gray report is published.

A frontbencher said: “The mood has turned dramatically. He’s in real trouble. And it’s not just the 2019ers panicking about their seats. It’s quieter older colleagues. Unless the report says something staggeringly good, we will have a challenge.”

Another Tory MP said: “It’s terminal. It’s turned from red hot anger to [a] cold, calculating sense of ‘How do we do this? And who are we supporting?’ … It’s a question of when, not whether.

“Letters are coming from the left and from the right, from Brexiters and remainers, because what is slowly dawning on people is that there’s not about a policy issue, this is a mindset, a modus operandi and culture that needs changing.”

Christian Wakeford, a 2019 intake MP, became the seventh Tory to reveal he had submitted a no confidence letter on Tuesday.

While Tory MPs said other letters were being prepared and saved as draft emails, some rebels urged colleagues not to submit them to the 1922 Committee before Gray’s report because Johnson could win a vote held too early.

One Tory MP insisted Johnson “will not win a vote of no confidence as there is no incentive to support him”. “With Theresa [Mayo], she had those who were frightened of what could come next. He does not have that," ellos dijeron, agregando: “It’s a disaster if it’s triggered before the report comes out, it will be held immediately and then people will not want to be judge before the evidence is finalised.”

Tories said parliament was full of talk about potential leadership campaigns, including by the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who is believed to have the sharpest operation, and Liz Truss, el secretario de relaciones exteriores, who is currently in Australia.

Other names being discussed included Sajid Javid, Nadhim Zahawi and Penny Mordaunt, while there are also possible candidates from the lockdown-sceptic right, such as Mark Harper, Steve Baker and Esther McVey.

Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary and former rival to Johnson for the leadership, gave an entrevista to PoliticsHome saying his “ambition hasn’t completely vanished” although claiming “it would take a lot to persuade me to put my hat into the ring”.

Sunak gave only qualified support for the prime minister, saying he believed his explanation of events. But asked if the prime minister should resign if he lied to parliament, tras el escándalo para indemnizar a los trabajadores que tuvieron que cubrir personalmente los déficits en las cuentas de sus sucursales provocados por el Horizon IT: “I am not going to get into hypotheticals, the ministerial code is clear on these matters.” He then walked out of the interview as he was being asked whether Johnson had his unequivocal support.

The backlash against Johnson has been driven partly by the public anger that Tory MPs heard in their constituencies at the weekend. One said activists were refusing to deliver leaflets for the forthcoming local elections because they are so demotivated. Many MPs also hinted in letters to their constituents that the prime minister may not be able to survive his in job.

Sir Charles Walker, former vice-chair of the 1922 Committee, wrote to a constituent saying: “The prime minister and the party are severely damaged in the eyes of the electorate. It remains to be seen if this situation is recoverable.” He told the Guardian: “You have 20 months of lockdown, which has left a traumatised, anxious and grief-stricken country. All of three of those things are now focused on No 10 and it was inevitable: the consequences of lockdown.”

MPs said they still do not believe Johnson has enough awareness of how much danger he is in. One said allies of the prime minister including Conor Burns and James Duddridge asked Johnson at the weekend if they could help with a whipping operation on his behalf, to try to shore up support with MPs. “He didn’t take it seriously until that moment,” one MP said. “There has been no charm offensive on his behalf. The whips have done nothing.”

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