Partygate: Tories are 'lumbered with Boris' says former MP
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The Levelling Up Secretary insisted there is “no one in Government who has his energy, his determination, his vision”. The PM is under attack from Tories from different wings of the party who believe he needs to go in the wake of public anger about lockdown rule-breaking in Downing St.
But Mr Gove told the Sunday Express: “I’m absolutely confident that Boris can and should win the next election and I want him to lead us into it and I want him to be Prime Minister for as long as possible.”
A confidence vote in the Tory leader will be triggered if 54 Conservative MPs write letters demanding one, but Mr Gove argues that Mr Johnson has provided “amazing leadership” on the biggest issues facing Britain and warned that ousting him would play into Labour hands.
He said: “Our Opposition would like nothing more than for Boris to be toppled. You can see that.”
Mr Gove’s ringing endorsement for the embattled PM carries extra weight because he torpedoed Mr Johnson’s 2016 leadership bid to take over from David Cameron on the grounds he could not “provide the leadership” needed. But now he argues that Mr Johnson has proven he has what it takes to helm the Government by making the right calls on Brexit and Covid.
He said: “I don’t think that any other leader of the Conservative party could have delivered Brexit in the way that he did. I’ve got no doubt that he will lead us into the next election.”
He makes the case the PM demonstrated his strength of judgement by putting his faith in the vaccine programme and not restricting freedoms at the end of last year.
“Before Christmas, I was one of those people who was a bit cautious about whether or not we needed more restrictions,” he said. “But Boris called it right.
“He knew the booster campaign would be a success and his judgement has been proven right on delivering that, as it was in delivering Brexit.”
Mr Gove also praised the PM’s character and compassion.
He said: “I’ve known Boris for a long time, we’ve had our ups and downs but I think one of the most underestimated things about Boris is he is a kind person. People see Boris the determined and energetic leader.
“They also see Boris the person with the sense of humour; one of the things people don’t see so often is the fact that when colleagues and friends are going through tough times he is a genuinely kind and thoughtful person.
“I’ve had one or two ups and downs in my life in the last 12 months and Boris has been personally very kind.”
The cabinet minister cautioned that many people who backed the Conservatives for the first time in 2019 were voting not just for the party but for Mr Johnson in particular, and they will ask if the party is still on their side if the PM is forced out.
However, former Brexit Secretary David Davis said fellow MPs could “see their own seats disappearing” as so-called “partygate” batters Tories’ popularity. Polling suggests Mr Johnson would lose his own constituency.
Mr Davis said there was “no doubt” that discontent was spreading. He claimed MPs “see themselves losing the next election on the back of this” and warned the saga “doesn’t help the reputation of the country”.
One former minister told the Sunday Express: “There’s no question it is the end of days, either for him or for the party I’m afraid.”
A senior backbencher said: “The interaction I have with voters makes it clear that trust has been severed. I think change means change at the very top.”
A long-term supporter of the PM admitted that attitudes to the PM have shifted, saying: “What we’ve seen in the last couple of days is that things have moved more rapidly than people expected. Increasing numbers of people just think that he can’t win [the next election].
A YouGov analysis suggests the Conservatives are on course to lose all but three of 88 “battleground seats”.
An MP said: “That sent shivers up the entire red wall. Because at the moment the people going wobbly have tended to be MPs in the south. But this has sent the red wall bananas on their Whatsapp groups.”
A northern MP who holds a former Labour seat admitted that it “feels different this time, like the threshold [to trigger a confidence vote] will be reached”.
Patrick English, a political expert at YouGov, said: “Based on these figures in the Con-Lab battlegrounds, Keir Starmer would be well set to take power. [Labour] would undoubtedly win the election, but whether or not it would be enough for a majority of their own remains to be seen.
“The projections spell deep trouble for the Conservatives, who lack allies in the Commons to put them power in the result of a hung parliament.”
The criticism of Mr Johnson comes in the wake of Wednesday’s publication of Sue Gray’s report into Covid-era rule-breaking which concluded there were “failures of leadership and judgment” and described “a lack of respect and poor treatment of security and cleaning staff”.
There is also unhappiness about changes to Government guidelines which mean a minister will not be required to resign if they break the ministerial code in a “minor” way. Labour will push for a vote the changes, with Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner accusing the PM of behaving like a “tinpot despot”.
A Tory rebel source said: “The person responsible for the ever increasing number of letters of no confidence is Boris Johnson himself. His contrition on Wednesday was just an act, his disturbing changes to the foreword to the ministerial code, snuck out on a Friday afternoon, shows you that his questionable behaviour won’t change.”
A Government source said: “The PM renewed his apology to both the House and whole country, and reiterated that he takes full responsibility for everything that took place on his watch.
“There are clearly lessons to be learned, which we will do, but the PM’s focus is also rightly on getting our country through the aftershocks of Covid, delivering on the priorities of the British people, standing firm against Russian aggression, easing the hardship caused by the rising cost of living, and fulfilling our pledge to generate the high wage, high skilled jobs that will unite and level up our whole United Kingdom. That is the mission and the whole focus of this government.”
The partygate saga could continue for months, with the House of Commons privileges committee’s investigation into whether Mr Johnson misled Parliament not expected to report back before October.
Tory MP John Baron, a veteran Brexiteer who wants Mr Johnson to step down, told the Sunday Express he had concluded Mr Johnson deliberately misled Parliament.
He said: “It goes to the heart of how we run our country. To knowingly mislead Parliament cannot be tolerated, no matter the issue, and whether or not the Prime Minister is considered an asset to the country or party.
“One day we will be in opposition. We have got to trust the responses we receive in Parliament are honest. It’s how our system works.”
Alicia Kearns, a member of the 2019 intake, also accused the PM of “misleading” Parliament with reassurances that Covid laws were upheld.
However, some supporters of the PM breathed a sigh of relief when Ms Gray’s report was released. Photographs of a Number 10 party to celebrate Mr Johnson’s birthday in 2020, the one incident for which the Prime Minister received a police fine, were far less shocking than feared.
A Conservative MP said: “The photos with the PM and the Chancellor in the cabinet room didn’t look much like a party. A sandwich and a jug of apple juice.
“It wasn’t exactly the final days of Rome. I think some people imagined it was going to be the Prime Minister dancing on tables and leading a conga line.”
Others argue that a leadership contest would only provide a further distraction when voters want the Government to move on to other issues.
Conservative MP Duncan Baker said: “People want us to get to governing, and dealing with the cost of living.”
More than 20 MPs say they no longer support the PM but only Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 committee of backbench Tories, knows how many letters have been submitted.
MPs who have confirmed they have written to Sir Graham include Newton Abbot MP Anne Marie Morris, who has had the Tory whip restored after it was removed in January for her decision to back an opposition move to cut VAT on energy bills. Former health minister Steve Brine has also submitted a letter, as has Sir Bob Neill, chairman of the Justice select committee.
The PM may take some comfort from polling from the US-based Democracy Institute. It found he is the foreign leader Americans would “most like to see in the White House”.
He was the choice of 31 percent of respondents, ahead of France’s Emmanuel Macron (20 percent), Canada’s Justin Trudeau (18 percent), Russia’s Vladimir Putin (16 percent), China’s Xi Jinping (nine percent) and Germany’s Olaf Scholz.
Huge challenges ahead for both leaders
Sue Gray’s report into Covid-era rule-breaking at the heart of Government was awaited with the type of feverish expectation normally reserved for the publication of a JK Rowling blockbuster, writes David Williamson.
Her dossier contains 20 mentions of “wine”, eight of cheese, plus an account of a “minor altercation” between two people and someone being sick. It is not easy reading for anyone in government but it is not yet clear that Tory MPs are sufficiently furious to trigger a confidence vote – never mind change the leader.
Westminster is in recess and MPs’ conversations with their constituents at Jubilee events and discussions with members of their local Conservative associations may prove crucial in determining what they do next.
As things stand, Sir Keir Starmer cannot rely on Tory backbenchers to get Boris Johnson out of No 10 for them. They may well have to do it the old-fashioned way, by beating his party in a general election.
The sound of the clock ticking down towards that vote, expected in less than two years time, now echoes throughout Westminster. The Conservatives are advertising for political press officers to “fight the next general election”. Applicants are warned in advance this will be “a long, hard-fought campaign”.
Yes, so-called partygate has been awful for Mr Johnson but Sir Keir knows that the PM remains one of the most formidable campaigners in post-war politics. There is also the possibility that the Labour leader will not be in post at the time of the next election as a result of his pledge to quit if he is fined for breaking Covid rules himself.
Those who know Mr Johnson well talk about his enduring energy and verve but he faces a series of challenges that would daunt any decathlon champion.
The June 23 Tiverton and Honiton by-election will remind voters across the UK that a Tory MP recently resigned after watching pornography in the Commons chamber. The Wakefield by-election, held on the same day, comes after the seat’s former Tory MP was convicted for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy.
Conservatives remember how the stench of sleaze turned so many voters away from the party ahead of Labour’s 1997 landslide. Losing Tiverton and Honiton would frighten southern Conservatives who fear that once-faithful voters feel neglected by Mr Johnson’s government; a bad loss in Wakefield would deepen doubts that the Tories can hang onto the lion’s share of the northern seats they won from Labour in 2019.
The Prime Minister will face a true crisis if the privileges committee concludes he misled Parliament over his claims about lockdown era. Bad headlines will not make it any easier to command the confidence of the public or the country as the cost of living crisis bites.
Both the PM and Sir Keir want a mandate to lead a cash-strapped Britain. They have two of the most gruelling jobs in the land – but they both know that if they were to trip up there would be a stampede among their colleagues and comrades to take their place.
Solving weighty issue of Imperial return…
Imperial measurements are to return to the high street under plans to be announced by Boris Johnson as part of the Jubilee celebrations.
Shops will be allowed to sell goods in pounds and ounces for the first time in 22 years, thanks to Brexit.
EU directives obliged retailers to use metric measures for packaged goods from 1995 and loose products from 2000. But the Prime Minister is set to confirm the rules will go in an announcement on Friday.
The move is expected to make it clear traders are free to use their measurements of choice.
A Cabinet source said: “As people have been happy to use both measurements it is good for the Government to reflect that now we are free to change our regulations accordingly.”
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