Most places you look in parliament, people are putting on a brave face.
Devout-looking ministers and friends of Boris Johnson beam with confidence as they proclaim the prime minister is still safe, and his popularity will quickly rise when Covid restrictions are lifted and the Downing Street party scandal dies down.
Those Conservatives who are pushing for his removal say with equal certainty and a knowing grin that it’s “the end” and the number of no confidence letters is climbing speedily, with 54 required to trigger a vote. As one sped off down a corridor this week, they winked and proclaimed: “Karma’s a bitch, isn’t it?”
After what was expected to be a difficult weekend for Tory MPs facing the wrath of their associations and constituents, some returned to Westminster reporting the mood music was “absolutely toxic” while others were surprisingly upbeat.
The lack of another “killer blow” in the form of fresh party allegations or further evidence Johnson personally broke the law inspired some to hope the temperature was “settling”, a minister reflected.
But the mood around parliament remains fraught amid rising tensions between backbenchers and the government.
Tory MPs grapple with nervous colleagues asking whether they want to back or sack Johnson. Many are holding off on deciding whether to commit regicide until the parties report by civil servant Sue Gray surfaces.
“It’s like waiting for Godot,” one complained. Some backbenchers admitted to having written their no confidence letter – but said they were waiting until Gray’s report is published before dispatching it.
“If he misled parliament, it’s sudden death. That’s a red line,” said a former minister said, who backed Johnson in 2019, and in 2017 before his aborted first leadership bid.
After Johnson on Tuesday delivered his first TV interview in days, where he stressed that no one warned him a “bring your own booze” event on 20 May 2020 with 30-40 staff was against the rules, MPs’ incredulity grew further.
One, Pauline Latham, said: “We all knew what the rules were. And we all wanted to break them. There were people around this country that desperately wanted to break them because they want to see their loved ones. I just feel that we’ve got to get the truth here.”
Even the alleged plan hatched by senior government figures dubbed “Operation Red Meat” has fallen flat.
Tackling the promise to crack down on small boats arriving from across the Channel by putting the military in charge – to which navy sources responded by saying they would not pursue Priti Patel’s pushback policy – Tory MPs complained ministers were “yet again, giving it all talk and no action”. One said: “We’re just drawing attention to an issue we are patently unable to solve – it’s daft politics and it’s desperate.”
An idea that migrants could be processed offshore in Ghana also backfired, after the country issued a statement rebutting the policy, mistakenly calling it “Operation Dead Meat”. Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, said it made ministers “look like total charlatans”, adding: “Be it Operation Big Dog or Red Meat or whatever schoolboy name they have for it now, it’s just ridiculous.”
While many MPs still believe Johnson can rescue the situation, the group No 10 will be watching with most nervousness is the 2019 intake of Tories. Many feel they owe their seats directly to Johnson and have previously been loyal to him.
So a gathering of two dozen of their number on Tuesday, in a colleague’s office in parliament, to discuss the partygate “shitshow” and no confidence letters will send jitters through the heart of Downing Street. “The wheels are in motion,” smiled one of those trying to engineer Johnson’s removal.
In a sign of the distrust between backbenchers and ministers, there was “genuine concern” from one MP present that Tory whips had stationed someone outside the office where the 2019ers’ meeting took place, to count attenders in and out. The MP also feared a covert audio recording had been made of the meeting, which was quickly dubbed the “pork pie plot”.
A government source pointed out the meeting was held in a place where MPs often walk through, though denied anyone was specifically posted outside to spy, and strongly denied knowledge of any recording.
Given the “toxicity” of the situation – one of the most common words used by Tory MPs – muttered gossip between MPs is increasingly focused not on whether a vote of no confidence will be triggered but whether Johnson would survive it – and the potential leadership hopefuls who would replace him.
Some of those who have not yet put in a letter privately said they would vote against Johnson in such a scenario. And even if he won the ballot, MPs supportive of Johnson suggested it would not make him immune from removal for 12 more months.
“Just look at what happened to Theresa May,” a senior Tory quipped, referencing when the former prime minister won the 1922 Committee-triggered ballot on her premiership in December 2018 before announcing she would quit No 10 five months later.
Tory MPs will have to keep their brave faces on as they prepare to endure another prime minister’s questions on Wednesday where Johnson has to field questions about No 10 parties. “I’ve never been more glad to need to wear a mask in the chamber,” one frontbencher sighed.