Allies of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson closed ranks on Thursday after a day of high drama prompted second thoughts among some Conservatives about dethroning their embattled leader.
One anti-Johnson plot by younger Tory MPs, livid at breaches of lockdowns by partying Downing Street staff, appeared to be fizzling out despite one senior backbencher telling him to his face to quit, “in the name of God”.
Wednesday’s defection of Conservative Christian Wakeford to Labour served as a reminder of the high stakes at play, with the opposition party surging in opinion polls.
“The prime minister is probably thanking Christian for what he did because it’s made a lot of people think again, think twice,” Tory MP Andrew Percy told BBC radio.
“It’s kind of made people a bit more relaxed, it’s calmed nerves,” he said.
“I think people have recognised that actually this constant navel-gazing and internal debating is only to the advantage of our political opponents.”
Before Wakeford’s defection, the plotters appeared confident that they were close to the 54 letters needed to force a no-confidence vote in Johnson by Conservative MPs.
But the secretive process remained on hold, with some rebels even withdrawing their letters in response to Wakeford joining Labour, according to reports.
The right-wing Daily Mail newspaper said that against a backdrop of crisis at home and abroad, it was no time to be changing leaders.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is “poised to start a war” in Ukraine, and UK inflation is soaring, it said in a front-page editorial.
“Yet a narcissistic rabble of Tory MPs are trying to topple (a) PM who’s leading us out of Covid. In the name of God, grow up!”
– Johnson unmasked –
Critics accuse Johnson of lying to parliament about what he knew and when with regard to boozy parties held in Downing Street in apparent breach of his own government’s Covid rules over the past two years.
While apologising for the parties, he denies misleading the country and insists that all sides should await the findings of an internal inquiry by senior civil servant Sue Gray.
On Wednesday, he indicated in parliament that Gray’s findings could come out next week, as he defiantly vowed to fight on as leader to the next general election due in 2024.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid agreed that any minister, “from the prime minister down”, found to have broken the law would have to resign.
But Javid said he believed Johnson was secure in his job.
“At the same time, people are right to be angered and pained about what they have seen, and they have heard. I share that anger and pain,” he told BBC television on Thursday.
Johnson tried to regain the political initiative by announcing he was lifting most Covid restrictions in England, with a wave of Omicron infections apparently fading.
He said that even a mandate to wear face masks in public settings — seen by scientists as basic protection against Covid — would expire.
That earned loud cheers from restive Tories in the House of Commons. But Javid denied that Johnson was trying to save his own job by placating the party’s right-wing, at the risk of people’s lives.
“People would be wrong to think that,” he said, insisting that government scientists agreed that the Omicron wave had passed after peaking at more than 200,000 daily infections in early January.