As MPs wheeled their suitcases on to trains for a short recess, those with lingering doubts about Boris Johnson’s leadership tucked their letter-writing pens back into their pockets.
They seem unlikely to come out again until the Metropolitan police determine whether the prime minister committed any criminal offense by attending a number of Downing Street gatherings.
There have certainly been new errors and developments that have agitated MPs – the protesters shouting Jimmy Savile jibes at Keir Starmer, the promotion of the chief whip, Mark Spencer, who upset many with his conduct, and the revelation that the Met will ask more than 50 people, including Johnson, to give a formal legal response to their inquiries.
“The reshuffle is transparently all about preparing for the Met inquiry,” one MP said. “The whole focus of governing the United Kingdom has been trained on keeping Boris Johnson in No 10.”
But none of the recent developments have been the fatal tipping point that could lead to the 54 letters that would need to be submitted to the 1922 Committee to trigger a vote of no confidence. Graham Brady, the chairman of the committee of Conservative backbenchers, has told MPs he will not trigger any vote over recess, or even count the letters again until the House returns in 10 days.
“The letters have dried up,” said one MP, who has been critical of Johnson. “I’m not aware of any new ones.”
A promised move to improve engagement between Tory backbenchers and the government made progress on Thursday, with the announcement that 15 policy committees mirroring Whitehall departments would be created.
Brady said they would work as a “sounding board” for new ideas, meaning it would be “less likely that colleagues will find themselves asked to defend the indefensible.”
The move was met with a groan by some Tory MPs, however, who complained the committees would only be effective if Johnson and senior ministers heeded any of their recommendations.
In his one-to-one meetings with MPs, Johnson has been asking them to give him time to turn things around, to demonstrate a renewed sense of purpose and a beefed-up operation.
Though some described the prime minister’s attitude in the meetings as arrogant, most said he had been attentive and agreeable, even when they had laid into him in righteous anger.
Some have been given even more special treatment: a prime ministerial visit. The launch of the leveling up white paper and the elective recovery plan saw Johnson take a whistle-stop tour of constituencies through Tory held-seats in Essex, north-west England and north Wales.
MPs who had privately voiced doubts to Johnson about whether he had become an electoral liability – as well as those who had been demonstrably loyal – were shown in person how he could still pose for selfies and engage even the most disgruntled swing voter.
“He was on top Boris form – relaxed, jovial but engaging,” one MP said, describing how Johnson had been stopped for pictures by everyone on the visit. At one event, an attendee had left his own wedding to meet the prime minister, who spoke to his bride on the phone.
“I know it impressed some colleagues,” another neighboring MP said. “It may have had the intended effect.” But another said it was “such an obvious set-up that I don’t know how they could believe it”.
MPs also said they had been observing various leadership contenders and found them wanting. “They have been throughly unimpressive,” one said. “[Rishi] Sunak is showing his naivety, Liz [Truss] is a terrible prospect, and others, like [Tom] Tugendhat and [Mark] Harper, are being too obvious.”
Johnson has also been granted a reprieve, in part, because others have been telling colleagues to hold fire – veteran MPs who believe that to go off half-cocked would result in the prime minister winning a bruising no-confidence vote.
“It is essential that colleagues wait,” one former frontbencher said. “We cannot have it happen where he is able to mount any plausible defence.”
One former cabinet minister who has been publicly supportive of Johnson said the prime minister’s position would be untenable if he was fined: “I think then, things are different.”
Another MP said the Tories would be laughed at if they ever tried to call themselves the party of law and order. “People will look back and say: ‘Why did we ever allow ourselves to have these lockdowns imposed when the people writing the rules never took them seriously?’ I think that has big implications for our democracy, never mind Boris Johnson.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism