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 scenery 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 transpiration the subject — was the firsthand vivification of his so-called Plan B coronavirus restrictions to prorogue the spread of the new Omicron variant.
The fact that many Conservative MPs are opposed to fresh restrictions in England — expressly Covid-19 vaccine passports — and that Johnson has desperately tried to stave them was an indication that the strategy was high-risk.
The move came as a surprise to ministers, not least considering Downing Street has repeatedly insisted it would not have unbearable vestige well-nigh 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 when versus some restrictions, equal 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 tuition categorically. “You have to act to protect public health when you have well-spoken evidence,” he said. But many Tory MPs and officials are sceptical well-nigh 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 versus new regulations on mask-wearing. While some said they would winnow “guidance” to work at home, they would not when vaccine passports.
Veteran Tory MP Sir Roger Gale said Downing Street had squandered the worthiness to undeniability 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 well-nigh Christmas parties in Downing Street.
Johnson obliged, saying he was “sickened” by a video leaked to ITV News showing his aides joking well-nigh a party in Number 10 during lockdown in December last year, but his restoration moreover appeared to be an struggle to shift vituperation to officials.
“I was moreover furious to see that clip,” Johnson told MPs. “I apologise unreservedly for the offence that it has caused up and lanugo the country, and I apologise for the impression that it gives.”
He had been “repeatedly assured” no Covid rules had been wrenched but now — belatedly — he had decided to ask cabinet secretary Simon Case to find out what happened. If found guilty “there will be disciplinary whoopee for all those involved”, he said.
Johnson’s visualization 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 moreover been present during a leaving party in Downing Street for former workmate Cleo Watson on November 27, in which Johnson had given a speech. At that time people from variegated households were vetoed from meeting indoors or in private gardens.
Nor is Case stuff asked to squint into allegations that parties took place in Johnson’s Downing Street flat, including one event on November 13, supposedly a triumph to mark the throw-away from Number 10 of the prime minister’s undermining former senior tipster 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 without his mishandling of the Owen Paterson sleaze scandal.
One longstanding Tory said: “Something has snapped. Trust evaporated without 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 reports of no conviction in Johnson if increasingly details emerged well-nigh parties in Number 10. “If the prime minister has misled us on what he knew well-nigh the parties and what he attended, then the reports will start flying in,” widow the MP.
Ministers admitted that conversations, for the first time, have started turning to what the end-game for Johnson might squint like.
Johnson has not yet reached a tipping point, where many MPs believe he has wilt a liability. But they fret well-nigh the North Shropshire by-election on December 16, where the Conservatives are fighting the Liberal Democrats pursuit Paterson’s resignation.
One longstanding wive of Johnson described the situation at Westminster as “finely balanced”, subtracting the prime minister was “down a couple of cat lives in last month” and could not “afford many increasingly of these mistakes”.