Denis Staunton: Tory grassroots pressure on Johnson all going in one direction

PM’s plan involves persuading MPs to postpone a decision on his fate until after May local elections

Conservative MPs return to Westminster on Monday after a weekend listening to the views of constituents and party activists about what they should do about Boris Johnson.

Most MPs have adopted the holding position of waiting for senior civil servant Sue Gray’s report on the Downing Street parties before making a decision, but the pressure from the grassroots is almost all in one direction.

Previous prime ministers facing unrest in the parliamentary party, from Margaret Thatcher to Theresa May, could usually rely on Conservative party associations around the country to remain loyal to their leader. The same was true for Johnson during his battles over Brexit as party activists moved in to defend him and to warn their local MP against thwarting his plans.

This time constituency associations and local councillors tend to be angrier than Conservative MPs about the prime minister’s behaviour and the culture of rule-breaking he has presided over in Downing Street. For the first time remaining loyal to the prime minister could prove to be a riskier option than rebellion for wavering MPs.


Holed up

Johnson remains holed up in the Downing Street flat, self-isolating after a family member tested positive for coronavirus. But his allies trailed his strategy for survival over the weekend, with the central objective identified as persuading MPs to postpone a decision on his fate until after local elections in May.

In the meantime Johnson hopes to win his backbenchers' favour by taking bold action on two issues that aggravate voters: lengthening NHS waiting lists and refugee boats crossing the Channel.

He will put the armed forces in charge of handling the migrant boats and release more money to clear the NHS backlog, and culture secretary Nadine Dorries is promising to freeze the BBC license fee for two years as a prelude to ending "the days of state-run broadcasting".

When Gray issues her report within the next week or two, Johnson will respond with mass sackings in Downing Street to demonstrate how serious he is about changing the culture. When Gray reports, cabinet ministers and likely leadership candidates like chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak and foreign secretary Liz Truss must make a fateful choice.


Truss, whose public declarations of support for the prime minister in recent days have won praise from the Daily Mail, may have an interest in positioning herself as a loyalist, if not quite a Johnson continuity candidate. But for Sunak, whose lukewarm statements have drawn comparisons with David Miliband's dithering over unseating Gordon Brown in 2020, the greater danger is in waiting too long to strike.

Johnson’s strongest argument for remaining in Downing Street is that MPs are not agreed on who should succeed him. Leaving in place until after May’s elections risks giving him time to reinforce that argument by destroying the strongest pretender to his office.