Conservatives beware. There’s nothing a desperate Boris Johnson won’t do to try and save his life | Andrew Rawnsley

Jhe magic number is 54. This is the number of Tory MPs who must write a secret letter to the chairman of their 1922 committee in order to trigger a vote of no confidence in Boris Johnson. There are easily more than 54 Tory MPs who think their leader is a crackpot, who appreciate the risk that his attempts to cling to the post of Prime Minister will inflict lasting damage to their party’s reputation and who understand that the Great Britain will not return to anything resembling proper and orderly government until he leaves. A senior Conservative official ended a conversation with me by quoting François Rabelais: “Drop the curtain, the farce is over.

Many share the public’s revulsion at the deconfinement of the Prime Minister and his staff. Some agree that he lied to MPs and that it is essential to the integrity of our politics that Parliament deliberately misleading should always be treated as a resignation offence. Others worry about what leaving Mr Johnson in place means for their electoral prospects. Anyone can read opinion polls. His personal ratings plunged to depths not even fathomed by Theresa May at her lowest point. This strongly suggests that we are witnessing the implosion of the Johnson cult that I spoke about at the last Conservative party conference. And yet Sir Graham Brady, the man who keeps count of the letters, did not announce that the magic number had been reached. Conservative MPs plan, gossip, inform, speculate and plot. With few exceptions, what they haven’t done is act.

One of the exceptions is David Davis, the prominent Brexiter and former cabinet minister. He waited until Prime Minister’s Questions reached added time before rising to confront the Prime Minister quoting Leo Amery quoting Oliver Cromwell. “In the name of God, go.”

Things would be much easier for the Conservatives if their leader took that advice and walked away. It would save everyone the spectacle of ministers torturously trying to defend the indefensible. His departure would likely reduce the chances of more Tories following the example of Christian Wakeford, the MP for Bury South who defected to Labour. A quick exit is not the desired outcome for Labour, who are best served by more weeks of dire Tory headlines accompanied by poisonous infighting between them. So you see why some Tory MPs are drawn to the idea that their leader might be incentivized to announce he’s gone to spend more time with his family.

Friends of Mr Johnson have often heard him complain that he cannot live on his salary while complaining that being Prime Minister is not as much fun as he thought. It never seems to have occurred to him that making money and laughing aren’t the main priorities of the job description. On the story by Dominic Cummings, his former boon-mate-turned-enemy Mr Johnson was bored of being Prime Minister less than a month after the 2019 election. “This job,” he groaned. “It’s like waking up every morning pulling a 747 down the runway.”

Even as a disgraced former prime minister, a lucrative afterlife would await him as a celebrity speaker. He could go back to writing columns for the Telegraph, a vocation much more appropriate for him than to lead a government. He could finish his long-delayed book, Shakespeare: The Riddle of Genius. He could then write his memoir, which he has the ego to title Johnson: The Wronged Genius. Leaving now might earn him some redemption from his party, and maybe even from some of the public, for finally doing the decent thing.

Sue Gray’s report may tip the scales for or against the Prime Minister, but ultimately Tory MPs will have to make the decision. Photograph: Gov.UK/Reuters

You probably choked as much reading that last sentence as I did writing it. Anyone familiar with his biography knows how unfamiliar he is with the concept of doing the decent thing. Putting the interests of others ahead of his own is foreign to a man who has always been entirely ruled by his ambitions and appetites.

His remaining allies are busy informing friendly reporters that he will fight to stay in No. 10 until the end. They would say that, of course. They hope to dissuade Tory MPs from acting against him by filling them with terror that rewarding him will be a macabre undertaking with no guarantee of success. A former minister predicts: “Boris will only be dragged out of number 10 with his fingernails hanging on the door. There will be scratches on the woodwork.

The battle to save his skin has already turned vicious. From William Wragg, a Tory committee chairman who was once a strong supporter of the Prime Minister, we have heard accusations of blackmailing MPs suspected of wanting him out. Mr Wragg believes this is another scandal and serious enough to warrant a police investigation. Westminster has always been associated with dark arts and dirty tricks, but bullying MPs by threatening to cut government funding to schools or hospitals in their constituencies takes things to a new and excruciating level. It’s government by extortion racket.

Another sign of Mr Johnson’s desperation is “Operation Save Big Dog”, the childish appellation apparently coined by himself to describe the effort to buy him more time. The attempt to flatter right-wing conservatives by throwing pieces of ‘red meat’ at them included spinning that asylum seekers could be sent to Ghana. The West African country’s government has exposed this as fiction by ridiculing it as ‘Operation Dead Meat’. There are no steps too low for Mr Johnson, including undermining Britain’s international reputation.

The longer Conservative MPs dither, the more they become complicit in this scandal and the less the public will trust them. Surely they know it. So what’s stopping them? One scenario that haunts the Tory benches is that a confidence vote is triggered within weeks, Mr Johnson just pushes through and then insists he has the right to continue. They would then be stuck with a leader who was finished, but not finished. This prompts some Tories to look for reasons to delay when they come to terms with the mistake their party made when it gave him the premiership. I hear Tory MPs argue that he should be given a ‘probationary’ period to see if he can build a more professional team at Number 10 and run a better government. It’s like having Dracula in front of you and a stake at your fingertips, but giving him three months to prove he can be a vegetarian. Then there are those wavering Tory MPs who argue they should put the decision in the hands of voters pending the May election. A Tory MP reports that his local councilors angrily ask, “Why should we be sacrificed because Tory MPs have no backbone?”

The most common mantra on the Conservative benches is “wait for Sue Gray”. Most of them fell behind the idea that they should stop until the senior official concluded his investigation in the scandal of the parties.

Johnson loyalists are hoping Ms Gray will give him some sort of reprieve by spreading guilt widely over the liquors breaking the rules at Number 10. Even before Ms Gray had finished her interviews, propagandists for the Prime Minister were saying her report would exonerate him most damning accusations. It’s a dangerous game for Number 10, not least because Ms. Gray will have a high regard for her own credibility. Someone who knows her well remarks, “She’s going to be very upset about this.”

Some of the Tory MPs who want him out but have yet to say so into a microphone say they are waiting for the report to be released before adding their voices to those calling for his resignation.

Ms Gray’s findings are now expected to be released this week, later than originally planned. That’s because she’s uncovered more evidence about Number 10’s party culture as it goes. The Prime Minister has pledged to be questioned about it by MPs, who are expected to insist that the report be published in full. Ms. Gray is a public servant, not an independent prosecutor or judge. Her conclusions, and the degree of severity with which she chooses to articulate them, may tip the balance for or against the Prime Minister with Tory MPs, but ultimately they will have to make the decision. Those who want to get rid of Boris Johnson will have to be as determined to kick him out as he is frantic to hang on.

Andrew Rawnsley is the Observer’s chief political commentator

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