In the buildup to the privileges committee’s inquiry into whether Boris Johnson intentionally misled parliament over Covid breaches, the former prime minister and his supporters refused to go down without a fight. Team Johnson repeatedly questioned the integrity of the committee, likening it to a kangaroo court. When Johnson received a draft copy of the report stating that he had indeed misled parliament, the former prime minister was so angry that he quit, slamming its findings ahead of publication and labelling it a “witch-hunt”. His key ally Nadine Dorries warned that “any Conservative MP who would vote for this report is fundamentally not a Conservative and will be held to account by members and the public”, adding: “deselections may follow. It’s serious.”
And yet, very few Tory MPs appear to have taken Dorries that seriously. When the report – along with its recommendation of banning Johnson from having the Commons pass former MPs are entitled to – came to a vote on Monday night, 118 Tory MPs voted in favour. Only six MPs went against it, with Dorries, who is yet to officially quit despite announcing her intention to do so, notably absent. “Nadine’s gone missing,” joked one minister.
Even Johnson appears to have got cold feet, signalling to his allies that they should not oppose the report as he “wants to move on”. While this has been read in some quarters as a small peace offering from Johnson to Sunak, it’s also the case that the former prime minister will have been keen to avoid a repeat of the Windsor framework embarrassment in March, when he signalled his intention to vote against Sunak’s Brexit deal only for a mere 21 Tory MPs to follow suit. “That was the moment he exposed how little support he has,” says one government aide.
The majority of Tory MPs, including the prime minister, opted to abstain on last night’s vote. This has landed badly with some of the MPs who stayed late in the chamber to vote in favour of the report. “He should have been there,” says a member of the 2019 intake. “It would show Boris has no power.” While No 10 insists Sunak had diary clashes, his absence was in part because ministers wanted to drain the vote of drama. It also shows that he is not looking to intensify the fight between himself and Johnson after last week’s war of words over the peerages row. That’s in part because Sunak doesn’t want to further antagonise the MPs in the Commons who remain loyal to Johnson. As one put it: “I’m being a team player and staying away from the vote. Having a fight with the prime minister isn’t going to help me keep my seat.”
Several MPs chose drinks at the Conservative Home summer reception over sitting in the debate. “The story is that we’re here and no one is talking about Boris. It’s a non-event,” insisted one Tory MP. Others argue that Johnson has dropped in public relevance. “I have received virtually no mail on the privileges committee or Boris quitting,” says a minister. One “red wall” MP says they have received about six pieces of correspondence on the issue, but it was split into pro and anti. It means there is hope that Johnson’s exit will not be the lightning rod for more Tory psychodrama, and instead could mark the beginning of a calmer chapter.
The problem for Sunak is there is little optimism in the party about the next few months. Instead, a sense of fatigue has set in. “It all feels quite bleak,” says a government aide. The disclosure of a damaging Partygate video – and the police considering a new investigation – means that even with Johnson out of the chamber the scandal could drag on. The ticking timebomb on mortgages is raising concern that 2024 – when the next general election is due to be held – could be a year of more economic pain rather than a Tory recovery. Sunak’s Johnson problem may be reducing, but elsewhere others are mounting.
Published: 2023-06-20 12:14:52