Boris Johnson was energetic and combative at prime minister's questions, boosted by a few dozen supportive MPs creating a roaring wall of sound behind him. But the performance had a special kind of impermanence about it, as if everyone in the House of Commons chamber knew it would be overtaken and forgotten as soon as Sue Gray delivered her report.
Westminster had been keeping vigil for Gray’s report since Tuesday afternoon, when it was clear that the launch of a Metropolitan Police investigation into the Downing Street parties was no barrier to its publication. Keir Starmer put in a dutiful performance at prime minister’s questions but he seemed to be holding back his best lines for the debate on Gray’s report.
Johnson’s greatest hits set was replete with references to Brexit (done), the vaccine rollout (world-beating) and levelling up and uniting the country (something of a work in progress). It was a morale-boosting turn for his supporters on the benches behind him and a message to others that he will fight to stay in power.
If the noise behind him was impressive, it only told part of the story because for every Conservative MP roaring approval there was another looking sullen and a third staring blankly ahead. Johnson’s supporters, organised by a group of former whips, have a WhatsApp group reported to include almost 100 MPs, who are meeting physically and virtually a number of times a day.
Their aim is to prevent the requisite 54 MPs from writing to the chairman of the 1922 Committee calling for a no confidence vote in Johnson’s leadership and failing that, to ensure that he wins such a vote by a decisive margin. The campaign playbook envisaged Gray’s report allowing the prime minister to draw a line under the parties with an abject apology and the wholesale sacrifice of some of his closest and most loyal advisers.
The police investigation already meant that Gray’s report would not be the end of the matter and the delay in publication has added further uncertainty to calculations on all sides. By Wednesday evening, there was speculation at Westminster that the report might not be published until Monday of next week.
Until it comes, Westminster will be consumed with plotting and speculation about Johnson’s fate but most Conservative MPs will not make up their minds what to do until they read what Gray has to say.