This week, Michael Gove’s lengthy Levelling Up white paper talked about the ancient city of Jericho. This was largely because of its size and natural irrigation, but perhaps the Biblical story of the city’s walls falling might be more fitting given the state of Downing Street. The response in the Conservative party to not one but four senior resignations — for unconnected reasons — is pretty fatalistic.
Martin Reynolds and Dan Rosenfield were doomed because of the former’s ‘BYOB’ email and the latter’s unpopularity with Tory MPs. But the Munira Mirza case is stranger: senior staff don’t tend to quit. Ministers like to resign in a blaze of glory, but even in the dying days of an administration people tend to want to go down with the ship. As one (formerly) pro-Boris MP remarked to me:
‘The staff are always the last to leave! They’re normally there in Downing Street crying as the PM finally quits, they’re thinking about the resignation honours list. No government in my lifetime has ever imploded in this way.’
Another said ‘it’s not so much the rats leaving the sinking ship but the Petty Officer.’
Neither of these MPs have yet sent their letters calling for a vote of no confidence in Johnson’s leadership. But the operative word in that sentence is ‘yet’. The consensus among MPs I’ve spoken to this afternoon is that it is definitely a case of when Boris goes, not if, and waiting for the final reports from Sue Gray and the Met may feel like too long for many of them. Everyone agrees that this ‘ups the dial for Boris’ and that while it has ‘felt fatal for about a week now, things are speeding up’.
A blame game is naturally raging in the party. Some allies of the Prime Minister are pointing the finger at Jacob Rees-Mogg for the Savile row, claiming that he whispered the line that Keir Starmer ‘used his time prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile’ to Johnson while Starmer was speaking in the chamber in Monday. Sources close to Rees-Mogg dispute this, saying that the accusation had been shouted from the backbenches and that he was not sitting close enough to the PM to be able to suggest it. Whoever came up with the line, the Prime Minister is their boss and the person who chose to deploy it against the advice of many others — not just Munira Mirza — in the Commons. He’s the one responsible, even if the Leader of the House makes a convenient bogeyman.
It was also Johnson who chose to announce that Lynton Crosby was ‘back’ when he met MPs on Monday night — only for that story to crumble faster than the walls of Jericho when it turned out that Crosby is still in Australia and is merely having the regular phone calls with the PM that have been going on for years.
The shadow whipping operation around Johnson is also taking a lot of heat, with MPs accusing his newly-formed team of being heavy-handed and aggressive towards anyone who is even vaguely critical of the Prime Minister’s leadership. That his PPS Andrew Griffith has been promoted to replace Mirza as head of the policy unit has come as a relief, not just because Griffith likes policy but because he wasn’t getting particularly good write-ups from the backbenchers he was supposed to be talking to. One friend of Boris remarked, ‘he was supposed to be better than the last ones and he turned out to be even worse, which was a pretty low bar.’
It’s not just that the rats are leaving the sinking ship. They’re also fighting in a sack. The question now in the Tory party is when the threshold for 54 letters will be reached — not if.
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