Tory backbench chiefs ALL join rebellion against Boris – as 1922 Committee leader says he will accept EMAILS of no confidence in the PM over Christmas meaning no let-up in pressure on him if party loses today’s North Shropshire by-election
- Tory rebels have warned Boris Johnson that things must change by next year or he will have to go
- The entire leadership of the 1922 Committee joined the revolt over Mr Johnson’s plan for Covid passes
- MPs are told that Sir Graham Brady will accept letters of no confidence in the Prime Minister over Christmas
- Mr Johnson will suffer another blow to his authority if the Tories lose the North Shropshire by-election
Tory rebels have warned Boris Johnson that things must change by next year or he will have to go after delivering the biggest bloody nose of his premiership.
The entire leadership of the 1922 Committee joined the 100-strong backbench revolt over the Government’s new Covid passes, and MPs were told that chairman Sir Graham Brady will accept their letters of no confidence in the Prime Minister over Christmas.
It means that Tories will be able to register their unhappiness with Mr Johnson as leader in the days following the result of today’s North Shropshire by-election, rather than wait until Parliament is due to return on January 5.
Conservatives urged Mr Johnson to ‘reset’ his entire operation, saying more than two dozen letters challenging his leadership of the party could be submitted following a series of scandals including alleged lockdown-busting Christmas parties at Downing Street and his handling of the Owen Paterson furore.
Mr Johnson will suffer another major blow to his authority if the Tories lose the ultra-safe seat of North Shropshire in a by-election triggered by disgraced former MP Mr Paterson’s resignation over lobbying. Voters head to the polls in the West Midlands constituency today, with the Liberal Democrats eying a real chance to overturn a near 23,000-vote majority.
Veteran Tory backbencher Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown claimed a leadership challenge has ‘got to be on the cards’ if the Prime Minister does not alter the way he deals with his own MPs.
Andrew Bridgen warned that the party was ‘ruthless’ at getting rid of leaders who had become a liability.
The entire leadership of the 1922 Committee joined the 100-strong revolt over Boris Johnson’s plan for Covid passes, and MPs were told that chairman Sir Graham Brady will accept their letters of no confidence in the Prime Minister over Christmas
Mr Johnson meets staff during a visit to a pharmacy in the North Shropshire constituency ahead of the by-election
Boris Johnson angrily defended staff accused of hosting law-breaking parties in Downing Street during lockdown last year.
The Prime Minister insisted events had been ‘mischaracterised’ as he held a press conference in the very room where aides last year joked on camera about an illicit gathering.
He was asked whether he would welcome a police probe into a series of parties in November and December 2020 that are currently being investigated by Cabinet Secretary Simon Case.
It came as former Tory London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey apologised after being pictured at a party in Conservative Party headquarters last December, while such gatherings were banned in the capital.
Mr Johnson said: ‘I think you completely mis-characterised the events in this place where people, to the best of my knowledge, have worked blindingly hard for a very long time in co-operation with people around the government and across the whole of the public services to do our very best to keep people safe.
‘The old Boris magic is wearing thin,’ he said. ‘He was brilliant at getting Brexit done. When he became PM I assumed he would get a great team to help him run the Government to make up for his lack of organisational skills. But he hasn’t.
‘As soon as [Tory leaders] become a liability they have to go. Boris knows this because he took part in the unceremonious defenestration of Theresa May. He needs to change or go.’
Mark Harper, head of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, said the Government ‘could not carry on like this’.
‘He can get back on track… Lots of things are going wrong and there needs to be a reset’, he said.
Tobias Ellwood, Commons defence committee chairman, said the MPs’s revolt ‘sent a clear message that future policy will receive greater scrutiny and [that] No 10’s performance over the last couple of months was sub-optimal and things need to change’.
But asked at last night’s press conference whether he intended to ‘change’, Mr Johnson pointed to recent successes.
The Prime Minister said he ‘would respectfully suggest’ the public are focused on the booster vaccines rollout in response to Omicron.
His lack of contrition following the rebellion will be unlikely to reassure his colleagues.
One senior Tory MP said: ‘I’ve never seen anything like it. People are angry – furious. I think that there are a dozen letters [calling for a vote of confidence in the PM] in to the ’22 [the 1922 committee of backbench Tory MPs], but if we lose North Shropshire [in today’s by-election, prompted by the resignation of Owen Paterson], it will be two dozen.’
However, another senior Tory MP said: ‘Depending on what happens with Covid, if he comes back in the New Year with some evidence that the No 10 machine has had the creases ironed out of it, he will be fine.’
Sir Geoffrey, who was one of the 98 Tories to vote against the PM, said: ‘I think now the Prime Minister has got to think very carefully about how he is going to reset his performance to actually govern with a united party because we all know what happens to disunited parties.
‘I think he can do it but it is going to involve a major change of the way he does things and consults us basically.’
Sir Geoffrey said the PM ‘has got to realise that he has got to consult his party properly before bringing these sorts of measures to the Commons’.
Asked how much danger the PM is in, Sir Geoffrey said: ‘He has got to now be in some danger and he has got to realise that because if he doesn’t raise that then he will be in much bigger danger.’
Asked what that means for Mr Johnson, the MP said: ‘If this goes on, we have had a very bad month in the last month, I think some members of the party will be thinking to themselves we have got to have a change.
‘But we are not there yet and I am still with him, I am still backing him, but he has got to change.’
North Shropshire has returned a Tory MP in every vote since 1983, which was the constituency’s first election in its current form.
Around 100 Conservative MPs rebelled to vote against Covid passes, inflicting a hammer blow on Mr Johnson’s authority
But the area has been true blue, only twice voting for another colour, since the Conservative Party’s inception in 1830.
In the 2019 general election, the Tories won 62.7 per cent of the vote and held the seat with a majority of 22,949 over Labour, with the Lib Dems in third.
So loss for Conservative candidate Neil Shastri-Hurst to Lib Dem Helen Morgan would be a major upset for the Tories.
Bookmakers have put the Lib Dems favourite for victory, while campaigners on the ground believe the result is too close to call and leader Sir Ed Davey described it as a ‘coin toss’.
Defeat would compound a torrid period for Mr Johnson after 100 Conservatives defied the leadership to vote against the introduction of mandatory Covid health passes for entry to large venues – the biggest rebellion since he entered No 10.
Asked on Wednesday if Mr Johnson would quit if North Shropshire falls, the Prime Minister’s press secretary said: ‘We are fighting for every vote.’
The result is expected to be announced in the early hours of Friday.
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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