Johnson attempts to calm Tory backbenchers ahead of recess

Allies hope required 54 letters urging no confidence are not submitted before close of business Thursday

Prime minister’s questions on Wednesday was Boris Johnson’s last opportunity to curry favour with his backbenchers before they head off for a 10-day recess and he was not going to waste a moment of it.

He began by telling them that on their first day back, he intended to unveil a “living with Covid” plan that would abolish all remaining restrictions immediately, including the requirement for those who test positive to self-isolate.

A YouGov poll found that three out of four people in Britain think it's a mistake to end the self-isolation rule but the plan is popular among the only electorate that matters to the prime minister right now – the one sitting on the green benches behind him. The first question, which was about the Northern Ireland protocol, was read out by Conservative Gareth Bacon and did not appear to come as a surprise to Johnson.

“The protocol does not require, contrary to how it is being applied by our friends, all foods, all medicines and all plants to be systematically checked in the way that they are. We must fix it, and with good will and common sense I believe we can. However, if our friends do not show the requisite common sense, we will of course trigger article 16,” said the prime minister.

Operation Red Meat

It was beginning to feel like a concentrated version of Operation Red Meat, last week’s unhappy attempt to appease Tory MPs by hitting all their red button issues at once. But like the original, which fell apart when it became clear that the plans for halting illegal immigration and abolishing the BBC licence fee were not thought through, the latest iteration failed to take off.

This was because neither Labour nor some of Johnson's own MPs were willing to let go of the Downing Street parties story, not least because a newly published photograph showed the prime minister next to a bottle of champagne during lockdown.

The prime minister’s allies hope that if the required 54 letters calling for a no-confidence vote are not submitted before close of business on Thursday, some of the heat will go out of the backbenchers’ anger. Some of Johnson’s friends are resigned to the prospect of a no-confidence vote after the Metropolitan Police investigation ends and Sue Gray’s full report is published.

This week’s mini-reshuffle was a defensive exercise that rewarded Johnson’s traditional supporters but his team were spinning that a bigger shake-up is planned for the summer. Backbenchers considering the leadership through the prism of their own ambition might calculate, however, that their chances of advancement would be better served by triggering an even bigger reshuffle – one that starts at the very top.