Boris Johnson is facing the looming prospect of a leadership challenge as calls from Tory MPs for him to resign in the wake of Sue Gray’s report on lockdown parties in Downing Street continued to mount.
There is a growing belief at Westminster that it is only a matter of time before the 54 letters from Conservative MPs needed to trigger a confidence vote are reached.
Former Tory leader William Hague said the Prime Minister was in “real trouble” while another ex-leader, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, appealed to colleagues to halt their plotting until celebrations for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee are over.
Former Cabinet minister Dame Andrea Leadsom became the latest senior figure to publicly criticise Mr Johnson, saying Ms Gray’s report had exposed “unacceptable failings of leadership that cannot be tolerated and are the responsibility of the Prime Minister”.
In a letter to her constituents shared on social media, she stopped short of calling for him to go but said she and other Tory MPs “must now decide individually on what is the right course of action that will restore confidence in our Government”.
Meanwhile Carlisle MP John Stevenson became the latest Tory backbencher to announce publicly that he has submitted a letter to the chairman of the 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady calling for a vote of no confidence.
On Tuesday evening a fresh headache emerged for Mr Johnson which could prompt undecided Tory MPs to act as a report from Lord Geidt, the PM’s independent adviser on the Ministerial Code, raised fresh questions over the handling of the partygate fine.
Lord Geidt said a “legitimate question” had arisen as to whether the fixed penalty notice (FPN) issued for the June 2020 Cabinet Room birthday party might have constituted a breach of the “overarching duty within the Ministerial Code of complying with the law”.
Mr Johnson responded in writing to Lord Geidt by claiming the FPN “did not breach” the rules for ministers as there was “no intent to break the law”.
Earlier, former foreign secretary Lord Hague said it was now clear that allies of Mr Johnson who believed he had escaped unscathed after the relatively muted initial response last week to Ms Gray’s findings were mistaken.
He said her report – which exposed the disregard for Covid rules at the centre of government while raising renewed claims the Prime Minister lied to Parliament – had lit a “slow fuse” which could lead to a leadership ballot as early as next week.
“A lot of people misread it really, the events of last week, as meaning the trouble is over, Boris is free and that’s actually not the mood in the Conservative Party, which is very, very troubled about the contents of that report,” he told Times Radio.
He said the intervention of Dame Andrea, a committed Brexiteer who backed Mr Johnson for the leadership in 2019 after pulling out of the contest herself, was particularly significant.
“The fuse is getting closer to the dynamite here and it’s speeding up. So I think that’s just another indication the Conservative Party is moving faster towards a vote of confidence,” he said.
“So a leadership ballot, which I said earlier could come next week, or at the end of June, a few more letters like that, and it will come next week.”
Sir Iain, meanwhile, urged Conservative MPs to hold off from issuing further calls for Mr Johnson to go for the duration of the Jubilee week.
“This is Her Majesty’s week,” he told GB News.
“I’d rather that we focused on her and the lessons that she’s given us which are of discipline, structure and absolute dedication to their country, which myself and many of my colleagues could at least bear in mind as we go ahead.
“Let this be a celebration of her and not a reminder of what feet of clay politicians have.”
Since the end of last week a steady stream of MPs – having had a chance to study Ms Gray’s findings in detail and consult with their constituents – have come forward calling on Mr Johnson to quit.
Under party rules, the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee is required to call a vote of confidence in Mr Johnson’s leadership if 54 Tory MPs – 15% of the parliamentary party – submit a letter calling for one.
So far, more than 25 MPs have publicly called on the Prime Minister to stand down – although not all of them have said whether they have written to Sir Graham.
However, it is also widely believed in Westminster that a number of others have put in letters without declaring their intentions amid speculation the tally is approaching the total needed to trigger a vote.
Arts minister Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay said it is “pointless” to speculate on numbers but acknowledged the continued uncertainty is a “distraction” as the Government seeks to focus on the cost-of-living crisis.
“It’s pointless speculating about something unless or until it happens,” he told Sky News.
“It’s a distraction from the work of Government, and in Government we’re getting on with making sure that we grow the economy to help with the cost of living.”