Just three weeks ago, Conservative MPs boarded buses for an awayday of party bonding and a dose of reality about the party’s electoral position.
At the Conservatives’ event, the elections guru Isaac Levido gave MPs some reason to hope the next election was not yet lost – pointing to Rishi Sunak’s own personal ratings and the slower rate of direct Tory to Labour switchers.
The key factor would be party unity and message discipline, both he and Sunak have stressed. Wednesday was the day that strategy faced its biggest test.
First came a vote on the new Northern Ireland deal – an issue which Sunak could demonstrate competence and delivery but which his enemies could use to expose the weakness of his own mandate.
And it was the return of the Boris Johnson show – a man whose ratings are at rock bottom with the general public but for whom many Tory party members still hold a torch.
Sunak’s strategy to walk the tightrope has been to try to take the high road. “It’s the Boris show. We want to distance ourselves from it so we’re just going to crack on with everything else,” one adviser said.
The result of the vote, which interrupted Johnson’s evidence to the privileges committee, was a moment of pure delight for the prime minister – who was in the voting lobbies thanking both Labour and Tory MPs for backing him, as well as enthusiastically greeting his Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker, the former Brexit “Spartan” who had previously coordinated successful Brexit rebellions.
Baker’s conversion to the cause of compromise has been instrumental. Once the key organiser of the European Research Group (ERG), he is now a champion of Sunak’s deal. For his efforts, he was thrown out of the ERG’s WhatsApp group, after saying Johnson risked being a “poundshop Nigel Farage”.
There were 22 Tory rebels – substantial but it saved Sunak the embarrassment of having to rely on Labour votes. That would have meant fundamental questions about his own mandate – which rests on the support of his MPs, having never won a party leadership or general election.
The relatively feeble rebellion came 24 hours after the once all-powerful ERG gave a damning verdict on the Windsor framework. At that meeting there were about 30 attenders. Not even all of their core members rebelled.
Behind the scenes, there was significant work from the chief whip Simon Hart, as well as Sunak’s deputy chief of staff Rupert Yorke, to reassure a far larger group of MPs unnerved by the decision of the DUP to oppose the framework.
“Simon has pulled off a triumph,” one former cabinet minister said. “You can see the fruits of that labour in the abstentions. Professionalism and courtesy works, who knew?”
Another Tory source said: “It is a contentious one for the party but the chief, the PM’s PPS and deputy chief of staff have worked hard to ensure colleagues have been listened to, raised their concerns and had the opportunity to speak to the PM directly about the deal. And the result shows the success of that approach.”
The faces of the remaining rebels will be of significant comfort to Sunak, despite containing three former Tory leaders, Johnson, Liz Truss and Iain Duncan Smith. It is those who are keen to keep fighting the Brexit forever wars or who bear a personal grudge against Sunak. Generally they are a parade of yesterday’s men and the awkward squad.
Any credible standard bearers for the right of the party who will bid to succeed Sunak are not among them. They are, instead, inside Sunak’s cabinet – Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman.
In contrast, few of the rebels have much personal ambition, perhaps only Simon Clarke, Jake Berry and Priti Patel still hope to shape the party’s future rather than fight the battles of the past.
The biggest exception to that is Johnson himself. At exactly the same moment, he was fighting extremely hard for his own political future, just a few corridors away in the Grimond Room, in front of the privileges committee.
If Johnson has written off returning to lead the Conservative party and was committed to a life of well-paid speeches and throwing grenades at the government from the pages of the Telegraph, then he would never have shown the kind of fight he showed in front of Harriet Harman’s committee.
Johnson has been rehearsing with aides and legal advisers for weeks, preparing for his cross-examination. For him, Wednesday was about defending two key parts of his legacy – getting Brexit done and the efforts of the government during the pandemic. It is hard to argue by the end of the day that there is much credibility left in the first legacy and the second is now irredeemably tainted.
The Sunday papers were full of extensive briefing of Johnson’s defence – that it would be a “bombshell dossier” that could prove that he was advised the rules were not broken. He could not, therefore, have deliberately or recklessly misled parliament.
But the final bundle of evidence told a murkier picture. One of the key WhatsApps that Johnson was to rely on for his defence literally used the word “party” to describe the gatherings.
Three of Johnson’s most senior advisers, the cabinet secretary Simon Case, his director of communications Jack Doyle and his private secretary Martin Reynolds also submitted evidence saying they did not advise the prime minister to say that rules had always been followed in Number 10.
The “repeated assurances” he had received did not come from senior civil servants, or lawyers, but from his political advisers. It may be enough to conclude he was reckless.
The former prime minister may still survive in parliament after the committee’s decision – they appear unlikely to impose a sanction so punitive that it risks a potential byelection.
But for the bigger picture – his political comeback – it is deeply inconvenient, for Johnson’s key argument throughout the session was actually that he believed that Number 10 was a unique workplace environment where people worked exceptionally hard and where it was an essential part of leadership that morale was kept high.
It was a theme that Johnson consistently referred to – how he considered it a fundamental part of his role as prime minister to attend leaving drinks because of how essential it was that staff felt valued. That was what made it necessary for work purposes.
But it is exactly that defence that plays so perfectly into Labour’s number one attack line and that echoes the anger that MPs heard on the doorsteps and in focus groups. It was one rule for them, another for everyone else.
For NHS staff working in flimsy PPE on Covid wards, police officers tasked with enforcing a spider’s web of constantly changing rules, for essential workers in low-paid jobs who disproportionately died of Covid, that flexibility did not seem to apply or at least no one thought it did.
That juxtaposition was most eloquently exposed by Bernard Jenkin, a staunch Brexiter and a former supporter of Johnson who had previously defended his conduct.
But he asked a question which had Johnson flailing – “if you’d been asked at a press conference whether it was OK for organisations to hold unsocially distanced farewell gatherings in the workplace, what would you have said?”
Johnson claimed he would have said – “I would have said it is up to organisations, as the guidance says, to decide how they are going to implement the guidance amongst them.”
It can never be proved that that statement in itself was a lie – but it does not sound plausible. The message – day in, day out – from that podium was the complete opposite. And even if Johnson had said such a thing, it is impossible to imagine that being echoed by Sir Chris Whitty or Sir Patrick Vallance.
By the time the three hours of grilling were over, there were two winners on Wednesday. In the short term, it is Sunak, who has reasserted his authority over his party and has seen his biggest internal threat greatly diminished.
“Before today, I though there was a rump of 60-70 supporters in the party who could resurrect Boris,” one ex-minister said. “Now I’d put that number at about 25.”
But there is probably a bigger winner in the long run – Keir Starmer – for the reasons that Levido and Sunak explained to MPs at their awayday. The more partygate and Johnson are back on the front pages, the more the Conservative brand is tainted and the harder the narrow path to victory in 2024.