THE first sign of real trouble for Boris Johnson came on Friday morning when he was booed arriving at St Paul’s for the Platinum Jubilee thanksgiving service.
Two days later and he was on his way to the closing Jubilee pageant when he got the call he had been dreading.
Tory shop steward Sir Graham Brady told him the 54 letters were in. A confidence vote was on. He itched to call his aides and plot a fightback.
Forget Brexit, his fallout with Theresa May or those snowy doorsteps in the 2019 election campaign — the next 36 hours were make or break. If they went wrong, all those years of hard work would be squandered.
But he couldn’t call them. He had a royal pageant to watch.
Instead he painted on a smile, picked up a tiny Union Flag and obediently cheered as a surreal array of pop stars, supermodels and even the Teletubbies trooped through The Mall on open-top buses.
It was only some time later, about 5pm, that he managed to get away and tell closest aides that all hell was about to break loose.
His first calls were to chief whip Chris Heaton-Harris, communications chief Guto Harri, chief of staff Steve Barclay and Aussie pollster Sir Lynton Crosby.
They dashed to Downing Street and decided three things. First, the vote should be held the next day.
Second, Mr Johnson should write individual letters to MPs saying it would be electoral suicide to bin him. Third, he would carry on with the day job. He had an important call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky at 9.30am.
As No10 kicked into action late on Sunday, most Tory MPs thought the main players were missing in action.
Rebels and wobblers were swapping frenzied WhatsApp messages and calls wondering aloud, “Where is Operation Save Big Dog?”
The whips had gone cold. No one from No10 was calling. Tory MPs feared that Downing St was sleepwalking into a confidence vote.
A senior Tory denied they were caught on the hop. “I’ve heard the shepherd crying wolf many, many times,” they said. “In the end, the wolf did come.”
The storm was coming and next morning the heavens opened.
At 7.36am ex-Treasury minister Jesse Norman tweeted a letter slamming the PM’s “ugly” policies and accusing him of presiding over a “culture of casual law-breaking”.
At 8am Sir Graham emailed MPs telling them the letters were in.
Political rival Jeremy Hunt was quick to stick in the knife, saying the Tories must “change or lose”.
Cabinet minister Nadine Dorries accused Mr Hunt of plotting to impose a draconian China-style lockdown on Britain.
But he was joined by the anti-corruption czar, John Penrose MP, who quit in protest at Partygate.
Over the next ten hours an array of ministers toured TV and radio studios to bang the drum for their leader. He had “got Brexit done” and “delivered the vaccine” and “got the big calls right” they thundered.
Whips dashed around Parliament delivering signed letters from Boris warning voters would not forgive them for having a navel-gazing leadership contest amid the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation.
Holed up in No10 for much of the day, the PM joined in the charm offensive. But inside Westminster it was the rebels who were smiling.
One plotter bounced through Parliament crying: “It’s time for patriotic MPs to do their duty.”
Another darkly said: “Big Dog needs to go to the farm.” Leading rebel Aaron Bell was seen lunching with Theresa May’s ex-pollster James Johnson, who has spent weeks slagging off the PM.
It fuelled ministers’ belief the plot was more orchestrated than thought.
Rebels insisted this was wide of the mark and the letters had been sent in dribs and drabs out of sheer “desperation and disdain” for Mr Johnson. By 4pm it was his time to issue his final plea to be spared the hangman’s noose.
He delivered a stark message — sack me and the voters will never forgive you. Sack me and you risk a Labour/SNP coalition that could tear up the UK.
Despite surviving last night, even Tory loyalists fear he is mortally wounded. But No10 said all along that he would stay on even if he won by just one vote.
As Jacob Rees-Mogg said outside the meeting: “One is enough. What do the French have for breakfast? One egg because one is an œuf.”
Q&A — what next?
IS Boris Johnson now safe?
IN the short-term, yes. In the longer term, no Tory leader has ever come out well from a leadership challenge. Theresa May was gone within six months. John Major led his party to an election defeat less than two years later.
Also, Sir Keir Starmer will make hay every week pointing out scores of MPs sitting behind the PM want him gone.
COULD the rules change to allow for a new vote of confidence in less than a year?
TORY rebels have vowed to continue their fight to replace BoJo regardless of last night’s result. Currently, rules mean another contest cannot be held for 12 months, but that could be changed by a vote of the 1922 Committee. Reducing it to three or six months would give the PM’s haters another shout at ousting him before the next General Election.
IF Boris steps down, what happens next?
THAT depends if he went off in a sulk immediately — perhaps handing the reins to the Deputy PM — or if he stuck around until a new leader had been chosen.
But No10 insiders say the PM will never go voluntarily. If he went now, he would be one of the shortest-serving PMs in history. But if he sticks around for a couple of months, he will beat Mrs May’s time in office.
HOW long does a leadership contest last and who votes?
It could be done in days. But given the number of candidates vying for the top job, it’s unlikely anyone would stand aside.
A contest usually takes at least a couple of months, with MPs whittling the candidates down to two and Conservative Party members getting the final say.