Many have told the Guardian that Johnson’s personal character and authority are now on the line
Reading their phone halfway down a wintry Whitehall early on Wednesday morning, a breathless cabinet minister was agog at the leaked news that the prime minister was about to introduce plan B measures. “It’s just one fucking thing after another, isn’t it?”
By the time plans got to a virtual cabinet signoff on Wednesday afternoon, the response was muted and routine. During the Covid-O meeting that preceded it, Boris Johnson agreed to temper the measures slightly, including adding the option of a rapid negative test to Covid passports – the measure that had been the main focus of opposition.
Rishi Sunak and Kwasi Kwarteng also successfully pushed to keep mask-wearing rules out of hospitality.
But though a tense agreement was finally reached, the private mood in SW1 among MPs and cabinet ministers in the run-up to the prime minister’s hastily arranged press conference was nothing short of mutinous.
Many told the Guardian that Johnson’s personal character and authority were now on the line – with no excuses made for bad advice.
Sajid Javid, once seen as the bright hope of anti-lockdown MPs, rose to give his evening statement in the Commons to a shout of “resign” by MP William Wragg. “What a load of old tripe,” another yelled as Javid said the decision was not taken lightly.
Just 24 hours earlier, cabinet ministers had sat round a table where ministers clashed over the escalation of restrictions and agreed the data looked concerning but that it was too early to make the final call.
As plans to immediately trigger new measures emerged on Wednesday, sources said Johnson had decided to press ahead with them only after the Allegra Stratton video joking about the No 10 party aired on Tuesday night.
Furious MPs began texting their whips. Many told the Guardian they had grave doubts about their own credibility with the public.
At the cabinet meeting just 24 hours earlier on Tuesday, no decision was taken on imposing more restrictions. Just three cabinet ministers voiced support for any change. Michael Gove, once the main voice of caution during the pandemic, argued for a return to home working and the use of Covid passports – even floating the possibility of further social distancing measures.
He was backed by Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, who was Westminster’s patient zero last March.
The other voice was Javid. “Sajid has been entirely subsumed into the Department of Health way of thinking,” a colleague said, giving insight into tensions within cabinet between groups once known as hawks and doves. “He’s like a remote control in any department – officials just point him where they want him.”
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, was the most forceful voice of opposition, interrupting Gove at one point to say, “Before Michael kills the whole economy …”
Sunak, the chancellor, kept largely quiet. But the majority of the other ministers round the table were sceptical about triggering plan B.
MPs and cabinet ministers on Tuesday afternoon had believed the No 10 party story was coming close to running its course. That all changed ahead of the evening news on Tuesday when the video of Stratton laughing with special adviser Ed Oldfield surfaced on ITV.
Message discipline has now broken down. “I’m blowed if I’m ever listening to No 10 on comms strategy again,” one cabinet minister said. “My views aren’t fit for broadcast, so I will just refuse,” an ex-minister added.
Instead of a scramble over the Christmas party, Wednesday was meant to bring a rallying call for booster jabs, an invitation for over-40s to book online and mark the anniversary of the first vaccine, given to Margaret Keenan last year. In the event, Javid was pulled from the broadcast round.
A No 10 source said he could not have been made to undergo the tough questioning with the prime minister planning to announce an investigation by Simon Case.
A minister was unsympathetic. “Saj should have gone on broadcast. He didn’t want to, but that’s the job, you have got to do it. Dom [Raab] did it yesterday and it was awful – but resign if you don’t like it.”
The only senior cabinet minister forced to face press questions was foreign secretary Liz Truss, who repeated the “the government followed the rules” mantra. “Don’t underestimate how colleagues felt about that, watching Liz read the lines off her notes,” an MP said. “She was the only person prepared to do it. What a spectacle.”
Instructions went out to cabinet ministers that they must join Johnson for prime minister’s questions. Whips hustled more mute MPs into the chamber, grim-faced behind their masks.
Johnson’s “unreserved apology” was met with near silence. “It was lies. No one believed him. Ministers didn’t believe him. They weren’t even nodding,” the former minister said. “This is not how you do an apology. We are constantly misled – and we were still in limbo about new Covid restrictions. This would never have happened under [Theresa] May and [David] Cameron.”
The Scottish Tory leader, Douglas Ross, and his predecessor, Ruth Davidson, broke ranks after the apology to insist there should be consequences. Ross, who has clashed with the prime minister, said he should resign if he misled MPs. “If the prime minister knew about this party last December, knew about this party last week, and was still denying it, then that is the most serious allegation,” Ross said.
“There is absolutely no way you can mislead parliament and think you could get off with that. No one should continue in their post if they mislead parliament in that way.”
No 10 said Stratton and Oldfield had not been suspended, in a tense briefing with journalists where two spokespeople refused to answer whether they themselves had attended any party in Downing Street. By late afternoon, Stratton had resigned and the prime minister had called a press conference.
Many MPs said they had moved past the point where they thought advisers were the problem, as with the Dominic Cummings crisis and other Downing Street turmoil. “There is no point in having a greybeard in there if they aren’t listened to. The problem is him. Not the bad, evil advisers or whatever.”
One senior Tory said Johnson was nearing the point of maximum danger with MPs – and said next week’s byelection after the departure of Owen Paterson would be key. Many Tories, including cabinet ministers, have indicated that they do not intend to help campaigning efforts in North Shropshire.
On Wednesday, the Lib Dems created a campaign leaflet contrasting a crying elderly woman last Christmas with Johnson surrounded by festive drinks. “We’re going to lose North Shropshire and it’ll all be his fault,” the MP said.
Most MPs believe few have as yet submitted letters of no confidence, but said the balance could tip if the election is lost. “In the new year, minds will focus on the next election – especially those who think he won them in his seats. And they will think about whether he is the right person to take us into the next election,” one said. “Things could start to move quite quickly.”