Boris Johnson looked strained as he entered the House of Commons at midday on Wednesday, hoping that a “dead cat” and an apology over Downing Street parties would dig him out of his latest political hole. The backdrop of sullen Tory faces was a sign that he had much work to do.
The first part of the prime minister’s escape plan — the tactic of putting the equivalent of an inanimate feline on the table to change the subject — was the immediate activation of his so-called Plan B coronavirus restrictions to curb the spread of the new Omicron variant.
The fact that many Conservative MPs are opposed to fresh restrictions in England — especially Covid-19 vaccine passports — and that Johnson has desperately tried to avoid them was an indication that the strategy was high-risk.
The move came as a surprise to ministers, not least because Downing Street has repeatedly insisted it would not have enough evidence about the Omicron variant until next week to decide if new restrictions were needed.
“We don’t think Plan B is required,” Dominic Raab, deputy prime minister, said on Tuesday. Johnson’s allies said on Sunday they did not expect new restrictions until January. Cabinet Office papers on options were not ready.
Rishi Sunak, chancellor, was said by government officials to have been taken by surprise by Johnson’s latest move and pushed back against some restrictions, according to Whitehall insiders.
“It was driven by Number 10,” said one. In the end, cabinet and Tory parliamentary resistance meant that new restrictions remained on the moderate end of the scale of options.
One Conservative MP, William Wragg, told Johnson in the Commons: “Very few will be convinced by this diversionary tactic.”
Johnson denied that charge categorically. “You have to act to protect public health when you have clear evidence,” he said. But many Tory MPs and officials are sceptical about the timing.
That will add to tensions when the Commons is asked to vote on new Covid regulations. “He’s going to rely on Labour votes to get it through,” said one Tory MP.
Last month 19 Conservative MPs voted against new regulations on mask-wearing. While some said they would accept “guidance” to work at home, they would not back vaccine passports.
Veteran Tory MP Sir Roger Gale said Downing Street had squandered the ability to call on the goodwill of the public with any new Covid restrictions. “If that is undermined through reports of hypocrisy and rule-breaking from those at the top of government, that is dangerous in terms of our public health strategy,” he added.
The second part of Johnson’s strategy — urged upon him by former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith at a meeting on Wednesday — was to apologise for the upset caused to the public by the furious row about Christmas parties in Downing Street.
Johnson obliged, saying he was “sickened” by a video leaked to ITV News showing his aides joking about a party in Number 10 during lockdown in December last year, but his apology also appeared to be an attempt to shift blame to officials.
“I was also furious to see that clip,” Johnson told MPs. “I apologise unreservedly for the offence that it has caused up and down the country, and I apologise for the impression that it gives.”
He had been “repeatedly assured” no Covid rules had been broken but now — belatedly — he had decided to ask cabinet secretary Simon Case to find out what happened. If found guilty “there will be disciplinary action for all those involved”, he said.
Johnson’s decision to ask Case to investigate only the party held in Downing Street on December 18 last year, while London was under stringent Covid restrictions and indoor social gatherings were banned, left many wondering why the cabinet secretary was not looking into other such events.
One Number 10 official who attended the party said: “It was huge, there must have been 40 to 50 people. It was really bad. There was cheese and wine ordered in by Number 10 staff. There was music.” Downing Street said Johnson had been working on the evening of the party.
But the official said they had also been present during a leaving party in Downing Street for former aide Cleo Watson on November 27, in which Johnson had given a speech. At that time people from different households were banned from meeting indoors or in private gardens.
Nor is Case being asked to look into allegations that parties took place in Johnson’s Downing Street flat, including one event on November 13, supposedly a celebration to mark the departure from Number 10 of the prime minister’s abrasive former chief adviser Dominic Cummings.
The debacle of the past week has weakened Johnson’s standing within the Conservative party, which MPs said reached new lows on Wednesday, coming shortly after his mishandling of the Owen Paterson sleaze scandal.
One longstanding Tory said: “Something has snapped. Trust evaporated after the Paterson saga but now I think we’re into real danger territory. MPs are getting seriously fed up.”
Another Conservative MP said colleagues could start putting in letters of no confidence in Johnson if more details emerged about parties in Number 10. “If the prime minister has misled us on what he knew about the parties and what he attended, then the letters will start flying in,” added the MP.
Ministers admitted that conversations, for the first time, have started turning to what the end-game for Johnson might look like.
Johnson has not yet reached a tipping point, where many MPs believe he has become a liability. But they fret about the North Shropshire by-election on December 16, where the Conservatives are fighting the Liberal Democrats following Paterson’s resignation.
One longstanding ally of Johnson described the situation at Westminster as “finely balanced”, adding the prime minister was “down a couple of cat lives in last month” and could not “afford many more of these mistakes”.