Boris Johnson chatted and joked with aides this week, as he prepared to address a Nato press conference in Brussels.
After three tumultuous months of dodging media scrutiny, he was relaxed enough to take an unscheduled extra question – and boast about being the only prime minister with the Russian first name Boris.
Colleagues say the war in Ukraine has given Johnson renewed purpose: he repeatedly urged fellow leaders in Brussels to do more to aid the Ukrainians in their struggle, with one source describing him as “genuinely tortured” at not being able to go further.
Certainly, the conflict has driven a very different story about Johnson; the partygate scandal is out of the headlines, for now, and the national polls have narrowed as his vocal support for him for Ukraine in its hour of need has dominated the news.
Even many of Johnson’s fiercest Tory critics believe he is now safe for the foreseeable future. One downhearted MP last week bemoaned the “spineless” cabinet’s failure to get rid of him when the partygate scandal was at its height, sighing: “we’re stuck with him until the next election!”
The MP – one of the few to have gone public with a letter of no confidence – said they were “in despair” at colleagues rowing back on their criticism but believed there was nothing the hardcore rebels would be able to do to get rid of him now unless there was an unexpected twist in the scandal.
Such a twist may yet come: the Metropolitan police’s statement last week that they were beginning to interview witnesses over allegations of lockdown rule-breaking in Downing Street raised the extraordinary prospect that Johnson could be questioned under caution.
The force’s statement also made clear its inquiry now involved reviewing questionnaires from more than 100 people in and around Whitehall. That officers now need to speak to some of them suggests there isn’t a consistent story – and therein lies another potential jeopardy.
The former chief whip Mark Harper went public this week with his insistence that the crisis was not over for Johnson, telling ITV’s Peston that while it was not an issue for today, “I happen to think when you’ve got a really difficult international crisis , it’s at exactly those times actually that you’ve got to be clear that your leaders are straight with you, tell the truth at the dispatch box, and can be trusted – and we’re going to have to look at what happened, what’s concluded, and then make a judgment.”
Even without partygate, some of Johnson’s internal critics believe the seeds of his destruction are clear to be seen: not least in his loose relationship with the truth.
Fresh revelations from a second Foreign Office whistleblower this week cast renewed doubt on Johnson’s insistence that he did not order the prioritisation of an animal charity in the Afghan airlift last summer, in just one recent example.
The prime minister’s relationship with the Evening Standard owner, Evgeny Lebedev, whom he ennobled despite concerns from the security services, has also come under fresh scrutiny since the Russian invasion.
And Johnson’s ability to offend and outrage remains undimmed. His close aid to him Munira Mirza quit last month after more than a decade at his side from him, over his refusal to withdraw a smear against Keir Starmer.
Last weekend, he was widely condemned for drawing an analogy between the Ukrainian people’s defense of their homeland against Russian invasion and the vote for Brexit, arguing that people choose “freedom every time”.
The former Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko issued a powerful riposte, asking Johnson: “How many citizens of the UK died because of Brexit? Zero… We have whole cities which were completely erased. With this situation, please, no comparison.”
Anand Menon, the director of the UK in a Changing Europe thinktank, said it was no surprise Johnson wanted to hark back to Brexit, which helped him win his 2019 majority.
Menon said the coalition the Tories assembled had been united by values – the desire to “get Brexit done” – rather than economics.
Uniting voters in a swath of ex-Labour seats with rural shires and affluent commuter belt towns on tax and spending policy may be a difficult task to pull off (levelling up may not play so well in Dominic Raab or Michael Gove’s Surrey seats, for example ).
Evoking the argument that Brexit was about “freedom” was an attempt to reunite those disparate voters around values, as well as allowing Johnson to replay his greatest political hit, he said.
“That coalition from the general election was a values coalition that is split on economics,” Menon said. “Brexit won’t be the top issue at the next election; but Brexit makes that tribe feel like a tribe.”
As well as Johnson’s Brexit remarks, that desire to call on values was clear in Oliver Dowden’s speech at the party’s spring conference in Blackpool, which involved nods to “net zero dogma”, the “cancel culture brigade” and the “privet hedges of a freepeople”.
At the carefully choreographed get-together in Blackpool, at which Jacob Rees-Mogg dismissed partygate as “fluff”, Dowden set out plans to launch a two-year campaign, to take the Tories to the next general election.
Asked about Rees Mogg’s “fluff” comments, Dowden told LBC: “As you know, there’s the police investigation ongoing. At the same time we are seeing this unprecedented crisis in Ukraine, and the leadership that the PM’s showing, genuinely leading the free world, kind of puts those things into context.”
The clear message to Johnson’s detractors was that after the chaos of recent months, he is back in business. And as he once told Labour: “plan beats no plan.”
Senior Tories denied reports that Brexit has already been singled out as the top issue for the next general election campaign by Johnson and his team. “You wouldn’t run a campaign around something that was of low relevance to voters: it just remains to be seen where we are at the time,” said one party strategist.
They expect “Brexit delivery” to feature strongly, but concede it appears unlikely to be near the top of the public’s agenda. And with millions of people dealing with a cost of living emergency, even avid Brexiters are skeptical their pet subject can be an election-winner come 2024.
As one Vote Leave veteran put it: “If Brexit was genuinely our number one issue at the next election – that’s not going to win you the next general election. There is no polling that suggests that. How do you say that five years later you’re still fighting on the thing you said you’d fixed?”
But the very fact Conservatives are debating how Johnson could fight the next campaign underlines how dramatically the mood has changed from just a few weeks ago, when many at Westminster believed he had little chance of surviving that long.
Senior Tories say it has not harmed the prime minister’s hopes of survival that Rishi Sunak’s spring statement bombed so spectacularly this week.
“Rishi is doing a good job of doing himself in,” said one party veteran. “There were a lot of people who thought that Sunak was the darling of the Tory masses – that is probably becoming less and less true. And the reason that matters is that leaders are more exposed if there’s an organized group against them, which requires a plausible alternative.”
None, the danger has not passed.
A damning verdict from the Met – and Sue Gray, whose full report the government has promised to publish – would still carry shock value, and the slew of spring statement front pages this week underlined the fact that pressing domestic issues can still recapture the public’s attention , despite the horrors in Ukraine.
Harper suggested the gravity of the international situation could then throw the focus back on to Johnson’s personal qualities.
“Difficult decisions have to be taken at times like this, so you have to be absolutely certain that the person in charge is making the right decisions for the right reasons – and then being straight about it.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism