Thursday's decision to subject Boris Johnson to a House of Commons investigation over Partygate has revealed the weakness of his grip on the Conservative parliamentary party and revived questions about his future as prime minister. Labour's motion on the inquiry passed without a vote after government whips threw in the towel, telling Conservative MPs they were free to support it or simply to go home.
Among those Tories who remained in the chamber for the debate, few voiced support for the prime minister and some took the opportunity to tell him it was time to go. Johnson was not at Westminster but 4,000 miles away in India, adding to his MPs' sense of being abandoned.
The government whipping operation collapsed when it became clear that too many MPs were unwilling to block an investigation by the Commons privileges committee into whether the prime minister misled the House over Downing Street parties during periods of Covid-19 restrictions. Minutes before the debate began, the government withdrew an amendment that would have postponed the vote until after the Metropolitan Police investigation into the issue was completed and civil servant Sue Gray had published her report into the parties.
William Wragg, the Conservative chair of the public administration and constitutional affairs committee and someone who has already called for Johnson's resignation, said that MPs were fed up of having to defend the indefensible.
“I care deeply about my colleagues. I know that a number are struggling at the moment. We have been working in a toxic atmosphere. The parliamentary party bears the scars of misjudgments of leadership,” he said.
“There can be few colleagues on this side of the House I would contend who are truly enjoying being members of parliament at the moment. It is utterly depressing to be asked to defend the indefensible. Each time part of us withers.”
Johnson appeared to have survived a moment of peril over the Downing Street parties on Tuesday when he apologised dozens of times during a statement in parliament. But when he addressed his MPs a few hours later, the prime minister sounded as if he was at an election rally, bashing every Tory bogeyman from Keir Starmer to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
For Steve Baker, a devout Christian as well as a formidable backbench plotter who had spoken up for Johnson on Tuesday afternoon, the party rally later that evening struck the wrong note.
“The problem that I now have, having watched what I would say was beautiful, marvellous contrition, is that the prime minister’s apology lasted only as long as it took to get out of the headmaster’s study. That is not good enough for me, and it is not good enough for my voters – I am sorry, but it is not.”
The police said on Thursday that they will not announce any further Partygate fines until after the local elections on May 5th, the same day that Northern Ireland elects a new Assembly. Johnson's survival strategy has been to buy time, argue that he should not be deposed while Ukraine is at war and shore up support on the right wing of his party.
The plan to deport refugees to Rwanda is part of this exercise and Jacob Rees-Mogg this week hinted at another when he said that Britain would reform the Northern Ireland protocol if the European Union refused to do so. His remarks reflect a shift within the government away from triggering article 16 in the protocol towards introducing legislation to suspend unilaterally parts of the protocol.
The queen's speech on May 10th is expected to include the proposed legislation which would disapply articles 5-10 of the protocol, which obliges Britain to apply some EU single market rules in Northern Ireland following Brexit. The Stormont Assembly is due to vote on whether to retain those articles by the end of 2024 but the Westminster legislation would trump any such vote, so that Northern Ireland's elected representatives would have no say in the matter.
Some moderate Conservatives hope the European Commission will make a dramatic offer of further concessions in the next two weeks that would persuade Johnson not to go ahead with unilateral action. But the EU's experience of dealing with the prime minister has caused it to trust him less than his own MPs do and it will be reluctant to reward what it will see as grandstanding.
By choosing not to trigger article 16, the British government may hope to escape the retaliatory action that the EU has long decided on as a response to a move to trigger the article. But the unilateral legislation they are considering is more aggressive than article 16 and more contemptuous of democratic principles as well as of treaty obligations, so the response from Brussels, Dublin and Washington could be more emphatic.