DAN HODGES: Red Wall rebels aren’t in retreat, Boris… It’s just a matter of when they strike, not if
The 18 Red Wallers packed into the office of Rutland and Melton MP Alicia Kearns decided they all needed to dip their knives in the blood.
‘We had to see where everyone stood,’ one told me, ‘so we gave everyone a bit of paper and asked them to write anonymously what they were going to do. We had to say whether we’d already sent a letter in asking for a no-confidence vote in Boris, whether we were planning to send a letter in, or whether we were going to stick with him.’
The notes were then placed in a pile, and mixed up. When they were opened, ten revealed letters had already been sent. Eight others pledged to send their own letter within the next 24 hours. None said they would stay their hand.
By Wednesday night some of Boris’s more excitable supporters were briefing that the rebels were in full retreat, and the coup against him had collapsed. They aren’t. It’s now only a matter of when, not if, the plotters strike
Ironically, it was another betrayal that gave Boris a moment of respite. When Christian Wakeford announced he was crossing the floor to the Labour Party, just minutes before PMQs, it had a galvanising effect on Tory backbenchers. As Wakeford entered the chamber he was met with audible hisses from his old colleagues, who then greeted the arrival of the Prime Minister with loud cheers.
Some former friends of the Bury Brutus expressed shock at his defection. ‘I was out with him on Tuesday night,’ one MP told me, ‘and he was just like normal. I didn’t have a clue.’ But another who was with him at the start of the week said: ‘I asked him, “So what are you doing with these letters to [chairman of the Tory Party’s 1922 Committee] Graham Brady?”, and he said, “Oh, you’ll see.” ’
By Wednesday night some of Boris’s more excitable supporters were briefing that the rebels were in full retreat, and the coup against him had collapsed. They aren’t. It’s now only a matter of when, not if, the plotters strike.
One of the problems for the Prime Minister is his enemies now span every faction of the Tory Party. Last week it was the Red Wallers. Next week the Tory grandees will start to make their own move.
‘We’re heading for a confidence vote,’ one former Cabinet Minister told me.
‘Wakeford delayed it by a day or two. But Boris’s best friends are acting like his biggest enemies now. Jacob [Rees-Mogg] is annoying everyone with his rudeness and Nadine [Dorries] is doing the same with half-cock announcements.’
The 18 Red Wallers packed into the office of Rutland and Melton MP Alicia Kearns decided they all needed to dip their knives in the blood. ‘We had to see where everyone stood,’ one told me, ‘so we gave everyone a bit of paper and asked them to write anonymously what they were going to do’
Then there are the Spartans. Up until now the doughty defenders of Brexit have been keeping their powder dry. But they are still furious at Boris’s disastrous – and abortive – attempt to save Owen Paterson. On Thursday, Steve Baker finally broke cover and warned: ‘It looks like checkmate for the Prime Minister.’
As one fellow Spartan told me: ‘Boris has a way to still get out of this. He could clean out the Augean stables. But that would mean getting rid of all those people Carrie has surrounded herself with. And I just don’t think he’s prepared to do that.’ And of course, there is the Cabinet. Senior Ministers have been keeping their heads down and trotting out the mantra: ‘Wait for the Sue Gray report.’
But behind the scenes the organising is already under way. Liz Truss has been out of the country, but MPs say her allies have been contacting them to arrange meetings when she returns.
Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak – who brazenly dodged Boris’s torrid PMQs session a fortnight ago – made a point of standing and chatting cheerily with his leader as they waited to enter last week’s session.
But any hopes within No 10 that this provided evidence of the Chancellor’s loyalty were misplaced. Within hours Tricky Rishi was holding meetings with leading rebels, who set out their terms for backing him in any leadership contest.
With the strength of the forces arrayed against Boris, any PM would be in trouble. But he has another senior Tory working to undermine him. Himself.
At the beginning of last week No 10 was confidently briefing that the Sue Gray report would exonerate him. But then it emerged she was delaying its publication to hold interviews with former staffers who claimed to have evidence they had warned the Prime Minister, and his principal private secretary Martin Reynolds, that the fateful Downing Street garden party should not be held.
This was crucial, because Boris has decided to rest his entire defence on the claim that as he stepped on to the No 10 lawn he thought he was attending a work event. ‘That’s where he’s made his fatal mistake,’ one Downing Street insider told me. ‘He’s put Sue Gray in an impossible position.
‘For him to be cleared she now has to say she believes a party was organised by Boris’s staff, it was organised in his own garden, it was organised at a time when the rest of the country was being told to isolate, it was organised despite senior officials warning against it, but no one in No 10 bothered to check with the Prime Minister if the event was OK. It’s completely insane. It’s just not credible.’
When Christian Wakeford announced he was crossing the floor to the Labour Party, just minutes before PMQs, it had a galvanising effect on Tory backbenchers
It isn’t. And last week it became clear Boris was starting to realise that. As he met Tory MPs in a desperate attempt to shore up his position, the events of the past few months finally caught up with him. ‘He cried,’ one rebel told me. ‘He kept saying sorry. He knows he’s finished.’
He isn’t quite finished yet. Boris told one colleague last week that when the leadership challenge is triggered ‘I will fight on’. And for the moment some of his MPs will fight with him. Reluctantly.
‘I think he should go,’ one MP told me, ‘but my constituency association doesn’t. They’re not there yet. So I’m waiting till the local elections. At the moment they still see Boris as a winner. They need to see him lose. Then they’ll realise it’s time to move on.’
This is the crucial point. No 10, MPs and Westminster watchers may be waiting with bated breath for Sue Gray to deliver her verdict. But the British people are not.
Last week, Boris’s defenders were furiously denouncing Christian Wakeford and other 2019 MPs for their disloyalty. ‘It’s naked careerism,’ one told me. ‘They’re just trying to save their own skin.’
Correct. They are. But that tells you all you need to know about how Partygate is playing out beyond the Red Wall, and among Labour voters who crossed the Rubicon to the Conservatives only two short years ago.
They’re crossing back. In their droves.
The poll this newspaper published at the start of the year showing the Tories on course to lose 100 seats didn’t lie. And it was conducted before the latest revelations broke.
Labour’s national poll lead is now in double digits. Boris’s personal approval ratings have slumped below the subterranean levels plumbed by Jeremy Corbyn on the eve of the last election.
This is what is driving Tory MPs towards their latest bout of fratricide. Fear. And hard- headed calculation.
Yes, Christian Wakeford may be an ungrateful, duplicitous, back-stabber. But he’s an ungrateful, duplicitous, back-stabber who has come to the conclusion his chances of remaining in Parliament are better served by putting a photo of Captain Hindsight, not Boris, on his election literature.
Even six months ago that would have been an unthinkable state of affairs. But this morning Tory MPs aren’t just thinking the unthinkable, they’re preparing to act on it.
‘We’re just waiting for Gray now,’ one rebel told me. Another said: ‘The storm clouds are black, they’re darkening, and they’re heading towards No 10.’
The daggers have been unsheathed. The plotters lie in wait. For Boris Johnson, the Ides of January are come, but not yet gone.