Boris Johnson is facing a major Conservative rebellion over Covid-19 restrictions next week, as a “sulphurous” mood sweeps through Tory ranks over the prime minister’s leadership.
Johnson is braced for a torrid seven days, with Conservative unrest playing out ahead of a highly problematic parliamentary by-election in North Shropshire, where the Liberal Democrats hope to overturn a 23,000 Tory majority.
The prime minister has infuriated Conservative MPs with his handling of a row over Christmas parties in Downing Street last year when London was under stringent coronavirus restrictions. MPs were already aggrieved by the way he dealt with the sleaze scandal that culminated in Owen Paterson quitting as Tory MP for North Shropshire.
Although few Conservatives believe Johnson faces any imminent threat to his leadership of the party, ministers admitted the mood was “seriously toxic”, with fears rising about Johnson’s grip and judgment.
“We’ve managed to whip up every possible combination of MPs against us,” said one minister.
Some Tory MPs have reacted furiously to his move on Wednesday to rush in new Covid-19 restrictions for England, even as Downing Street announced details of an inquiry into whether government officials broke similar rules by holding parties last year.
“It’s the combination that makes it volcanic,” said one government member. Andrew Mitchell, a former Tory minister, told the BBC the mood was “sulphurous” but Johnson could retrieve the situation if he got “a grip”.
Johnson’s first test will come next Tuesday when MPs vote on the new coronavirus restrictions, with at least 30 Conservatives threatening to reject a package that includes a requirement for Covid-19 vaccine certificates for entry to crowded events.
Labour will support the new restrictions — ensuring they will come into force — but the rebellion by Tories is becoming corrosive for the government.
Sajid Javid, health secretary, was heckled by Conservative MPs when he outlined the move to the so-called Plan B restrictions — a package of measures that also requires more masks in public places and guidance to work from home — to control the spread of the Omicron variant of coronavirus.
Javid on Thursday tried to calm Tory anger when he ruled out any prospect of compulsory Covid vaccinations, saying it would be impractical.
But the new Covid restrictions have fuelled anger across the Conservative party.
“Literally everyone is fed up with him,” said one senior Tory MP. Senior Conservatives believe “some letters” expressing no confidence in Johnson have been submitted to Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee of backbench Tory MPs, but there is not yet a serious revolt.
“Boris won us an 80-seat majority two years ago,” said one senior Conservative MP, referring to the 2019 general election.
Most Tories still believe Johnson is an electoral asset but recent polls have shown Labour pulling ahead of the Conservatives.
The Lib Dems, who finished third in North Shropshire in 2019, are flooding the rural, Brexit-supporting constituency with activists, hoping to take advantage of Johnson’s recent travails in the by-election next Thursday.
One government member predicted that if the Tories lost the seat then more letters of no confidence could arrive on Brady’s desk. An ally of Johnson predicted there would be “real trouble”.
The prime minister has tried to draw a line under questions about government officials holding parties last year — allegedly in breach of Covid rules — by putting cabinet secretary Simon Case in charge of an inquiry into what happened.
But Johnson was under fresh pressure on Thursday after ITV News reported that Jack Doyle, Johnson’s communications director, attended an event attended by Downing Street staff on December 18.
Number 10 insiders confirmed Doyle gave a speech lasting about 10 minutes in which he thanked officials for their work and handed out awards.
The Cabinet Office said the inquiry by Case into festive gatherings would cover allegations about Number 10 parties on November 27 and December 18 last year, as well an education department event on December 10.
But the scope of the inquiry may go further. “Where there are credible allegations relating to other gatherings, these may be investigated,” stated the terms of reference.
“Any evidence of potentially criminal behaviour will be submitted to the police and the findings of the investigations will be made public.”