JASON GROVES: What Boris MUST now do to see off ambitious rivals

JASON GROVES: What Boris MUST now do to see off Liz and other ambitious rivals after bruising 100 MP rebellion

The rebels are ‘haemorrhaging’ support, declared a bullish minister just an hour before 100 Tory MPs delivered the biggest bloody nose of Boris Johnson’s premiership.

As an illustration of the disconnect between a dysfunctional government machine and the increasingly mutinous Tory backbenches, the optimistic prediction was hard to beat.

The hapless minister was emerging from a hastily convened meeting of the 1922 Committee at which rebel MPs listened politely to the PM as he made a last-ditch attempt to win them over.

Mr Johnson explained he had ‘absolutely no choice’ but to implement his Covid Plan B, given the dire warnings – and agreed to their central demand that Parliament would be recalled if further curbs are needed this Christmas.

‘I did my best,’ he told reporters as he emerged from the wood-panelled room.

But within the hour, the rebels had calmly pocketed the concession and voted against him anyway.

‘He tried to give it the old magic, and he came with a big concession,’ said one MP. ‘But people have had enough.

‘He needs to change or go, and he hasn’t changed for 40 years.’

Mr Johnson explained he had ‘absolutely no choice’ but to implement his Covid Plan B, given the dire warnings – and agreed to their central demand that Parliament would be recalled if further curbs are needed this Christmas

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, treasurer of the 1922 Committee, declared that the prospect of a New Year leadership contest was now ‘on the cards’.

But for many rebel MPs, the vote itself was strangely cathartic.

‘All this stupid talk of leadership challenges is completely overblown, at least for now,’ said one former Cabinet minister. 

‘This was a wake-up call to Boris that he needs to sort out the shambles he is presiding over. If he doesn’t, then the party will eventually decide it is going to lose under him and act accordingly. But we are not at that point yet.’

Nevertheless, potential rivals are circling.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is quietly letting it be known to Tory MPs that he argued against the introduction of Plan B at this stage.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is hosting drinks receptions for potential supporters at a discreet private members’ club in Mayfair.

In a further sign of Miss Truss’s vaulting ambition, she released images of her Christmas card yesterday in which she strikes a pose so regal that observers joked she had moved on from wanting to be prime minister and now hopes to succeed the Queen.

In a further sign of Miss Truss’s vaulting ambition, she released images of her Christmas card yesterday in which she strikes a pose so regal that observers joked she had moved on from wanting to be prime minister and now hopes to succeed the Queen 

Matters could get much worse when the voters of North Shropshire go to the polls today. The picturesque constituency has returned a Conservative MP for more than 200 years. In 2019, former Cabinet minister Owen Paterson secured a majority of almost 23,000.

But the Tory campaign is struggling against a backdrop of the sleaze allegations triggered by Mr Paterson’s departure, and controversy about lockdown-busting parties in No 10 last Christmas.

The latter has become such a hot topic on the doorstep that when candidate Neil Shastri-Hurst was cornered by veteran political reporter Michael Crick yesterday, he was unwilling to say, four times, whether he believes the PM is a man of ‘honesty and integrity’.

One MP predicted that ‘the letters will go in’ if the Tories fail to hold North Shropshire – a reference to Tory rules that require 55 letters of no confidence to be sent to 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady to trigger a leadership contest.

But most reckon the PM still has a little time to put his house in order before a trickle of letters becomes a flood, not least because a potential electoral disaster in North Shropshire is already being ‘priced in’. One Tory source said defeat was ‘inevitable’.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is quietly letting it be known to Tory MPs that he argued against the introduction of Plan B at this stage

An even bigger problem is posed by the looming Omicron crisis.

A Downing Street insider voiced frustration yesterday at the opposition to the Government’s watered-down Plan B proposals, which almost no-one thinks will be enough to halt the mutant strain.

‘They just don’t get it,’ said the source – a sentiment echoed by former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who said Tuesday’s vote ‘felt like it was fighting yesterday’s war – the issue now is not whether we have Covid passes but whether nightclubs are able to open at all’.

Nevertheless, the scale of the opposition seems certain to make the PM think twice about imposing more stringent measures. 

‘They just don’t get it,’ said the source – a sentiment echoed by former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who said Tuesday’s vote ‘felt like it was fighting yesterday’s war

A Cabinet source said: ‘I don’t see how it will be possible to bring in anything else unless there is very clear evidence that Omicron is leading to hospitalisations and deaths.’

All of this comes against a backdrop of fear inside No 10 where staff are anxiously waiting to hear if they will be thrown to the wolves when Cabinet Secretary Simon Case reports back on the now notorious party culture in the coming days. 

Insiders are furious with the BBC for the way it has seized on claims in the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror about parties in No 10. But they concede the row has cut through to the public.

Friends of the PM acknowledge he looks ‘knackered’ – not helped by the arrival last week of his seventh child.

One Cabinet minister believes the PM could even quit if his MPs launch a concerted bid to force him out.

‘Everyone needs to calm down,’ the minister said. ‘Think of the endless crises we were in under Theresa May.

‘That said, if it did come to it I think he might walk away rather than face the psychodrama of a contest. Some days he seems like he’s had enough.’

Opposition to Mrs May’s reign was focused largely among the party’s Brexiteers. Boris, by contrast, has got critics everywhere he looks.

Opposition to Mrs May’s reign was focused largely among the party’s Brexiteers. Boris, by contrast, has got critics everywhere he looks

Many Brexiteers who helped sweep him to office are now bitterly opposed to his Covid policies.

Old allies of Mrs May, such as Damian Green, Liam Fox and Sir Charles Walker, were also prominent among the rebels. Mrs May abstained, doing nothing to discourage speculation she is quietly encouraging a ‘Project Revenge’ operation against the man who helped force her from office.

Worryingly for No 10, the rebellion included a large number of MPs drawn from the 2019 intake, who might normally be expected to stay loyal. Louie French voted against the Government less than a fortnight after being elected in the Bexley by-election.

‘The whipping operation is broken,’ observed one senior minister. ‘They seem to be totally blindsided by the level of anger over this and were slow to react even when it became glaringly obvious.’

Old friends say Mr Johnson needs a rest, but still back him to bounce back.

‘The situation is not irrecoverable,’ said one of his oldest allies. ‘No one is better at getting out of a tight corner.

‘My advice to him would be to use this opportunity to clear the decks. Get every single piece of bad news out there now, have a good Christmas holiday, hire some big hitters to beef up No 10 and get back to his post-Brexit agenda refreshed in the New Year.’

Sage advice. But with the Omicron onslaught approaching fast, the chances of the Prime Minister getting a Christmas break to clear his head and get on top of the malfunctioning government machine look remote.

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