LBC Views: Boris Johnson is a problem that the Tories are unwilling to solve

25 May 2022, 21:43 | Updated: 26 May 2022, 08:40

Ben Kentish says Boris Johnson is safer in his job than he has been for many moinths
Ben Kentish says Boris Johnson is safer in his job than he has been for many moinths. Picture: Global

By Ben Kentish

This was the report that threatened to topple a Prime Minister. It was the investigation that, for weeks, had been speculated about and pored over in Westminster.

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The language, it was said, could be so eviscerating about Boris Johnson that Tory MPs would have no choice but to oust him.

Yet the sound that could be heard when Sue Gray’s report was finally published this morning was a huge collective sigh of relief from those in government.

The 37-page document was described by several Conservative MPs today as a "damp squib". Gray pulled her punches.

There was no stinging condemnation of specific people in power. In fact, the language was rather tame compared to what some in government feared was coming.

That’s not to say the report was not damning. Gray condemned the "unacceptable" treatment of cleaners and security guards in Downing Street.

She slammed the political and civil service leadership and made clear that they should take the wrap for what happened on their watch.

And she made clear that the responsibility for what had happened lay with those in charge in No10.

The details of some of the gatherings also made for some deeply embarrassing reading for those in government.

The night before Prince Philip’s funeral, Gray found, Downing Street staff "remained in the building and carried on drinking alcohol until the early hours", with the last staff member not leaving the building that is supposed to be the heart of government until 4.20am.

Another event, on 18th June 2020, saw staff drinking prosecco and eating pizza to mark a colleague leaving.

Gray wrote: "The event lasted for a number of hours. There was excessive alcohol consumption by some individuals. One individual was sick. There was a minor alteration between two individuals."

There is also damning evidence that at least some in No10 knew what they were doing was not allowed.

In relation to a 'BYOB' garden party on 20th Math 2020, one official suggested that staff use a back exit to avoid being seen.

The then Director of Communications warned in writing that inviting 200 people to drinks in the No10 garden was "somewhat of a comms risk in the current environment".

Perhaps most tellingly of all, Johnson’s closest civil service aide later texted another official saying "we seem to have got away with [the drinks event]".

It was no surprise, then, that Boris Johnson used his statement in the Commons and a later press conference to repeatedly apologise and insist that it was now time to move on.

The big question is whether his MPs and the public are willing to do so.

Conservative MPs are unhappy – in some cases, deeply so. They are fed up and frustrated, and in the case of many, fearful about their own futures.

One MP with a majority of over 15,000 predicted that they were certain to lose their seat, adding: "Today was the day the Prime Minister is safe. Today is also the day the Conservatives lost the next general election."

Another with an even bigger majority also predicted that they could be in trouble in their constituency if the Prime Minister stays on until the next election.

A third former minister, said they felt "massively let down", adding: "I think the ruling elite are lying b******* who partied and were rude to working staff and did not follow lockdown rules that caused misery for millions."

But despite the fear and frustration, many of the MPs who would privately like Johnson to go are unwilling to do anything to make that happen, including submitting a letter of no confidence in him.

They tend to cite one of two reasons for being hesitant: firstly, the challenges facing the country, including the war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis, and the desire not to create further instability by triggering a leadership contest.

Secondly, the lack of an obvious successor who would be guaranteed to be better than the incumbent.

There is, in short, a sense that the Prime Minister has become a problem – but someone else’s problem to solve.

Ultimately Conservative MPs will take their lead – over time - from the public.

The forthcoming by-elections in Wakefield and Tiverton will be another test of whether the British public is showing any sign of forgiving Johnson for what went on in Downing Street during the pandemic.

But while defeat in one or both of those elections would fuel unease among Tory MPs, it will likely take more than that to force his MPs to act.

We are still probably two years away from a general election and, Tories hope, that is plenty of time for Johnson to turn his and his party’s fortunes around.

But if that date edges closer and the polls have not changed, Tory MPs may well rediscover their tendency for ruthlessness and regicide.

For now though, Boris Johnson has survived the Met Police probe. He has survived the Sue Gray report. And that means he is safer in his job tonight than he has been for many months.