Analysis: the calculations that will determine if PM can survive scandal

Prime minister Boris Johnson

Prime minister Boris Johnson during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons. - Credit: PA

Boris Johnson's fate lies in the hands of his Conservative colleagues. DAN GRIMMER turns to Twitter to read the runes of the mood in the party.

How times have changed. Back in March 1963, war secretary John Profumo told parliament there was “no impropriety whatsoever” in his relationship with 19-year-old Christine Keeler.

Ten weeks later he resigned, admitting he had lied and that he had been having an affair with the young dancer - who was also the lover of a Soviet spy.

John Profumo

John Profumo - Credit: PA

A few months later, Conservative prime minister Harold McMillan quit. A year later, Labour were in power.

Fast forward to 2022 and we have another Conservative prime minister fighting for his political life and Labour scenting blood after Boris Johnson admitted attending a 'bring your own booze' party in the Downing Street garden in the midst of lockdown in May 2020.

The country is again waiting to see whether events will unfold as momentously and as swiftly for the Conservatives and the country as they did in 1963.

But this time, it is glued to Twitter to look for clues as to how the current scandal will play out.

Most Read

For it is on the social networking site where Conservative MPs - who will ultimately decide Mr Johnson's fate - can indicate their support, or otherwise, for their embattled leader, without having to face the difficulty of a journalist's questions.

It is a difficult call for Conservatives to make. As letters from furious constituent pile in, they must consider the political capital they will expend by publicly supporting Mr Johnson, with the requirements of staying loyal to the man who is still their boss. For politicians with ambitions - either for ministerial advancement, or simply to hold on to a marginal seat - these are fiendishly difficult times.

It was on Twitter where the first signs of what is being called 'Operation Save Boris' were seen, as Cabinet colleagues rallied to Mr Johnson after his apology to the House of Commons for having attended the gathering, which he says he considered 'work-related'.

The first senior Conservative to break cover was culture secretary Nadine Dorries, who tweeted her full support for the PM around three hours after his apology in the Commons, at 3.04pm.

Others followed suit, but it was several hours before chancellor Rishi Sunak - touted by many as possible successor to Mr Johnson - had his say, at 8.11pm, with a hardly effusive statement of backing.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak outside 11 Downing Street, London, before heading to the House of Commons to

Chancellor Rishi Sunak. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Explaining how he had been busy on a visit discussing jobs and the energy sector, he said: "The PM was right to apologise and I support his request for patience while Sue Gray carries out her inquiry.”

But South West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss, considered to be Mr Sunak's main rival to succeed Mr Johnson, was even later in posting a message.

Foreign Secretary and South West Norfolk MP Liz Truss

South West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss. - Credit: Chris Bishop

It was at 9.14pm that the foreign secretary tweeted: "The prime minister is delivering for Britain - from Brexit to the booster programme to economic growth. I stand behind the prime minister 100pc as he takes our country forward."

Some cynics have pointed out that Ms Truss's comments came too late to lead headlines, or for some of the next day's newspapers to include, arriving at a time when even many avid Twitter watchers had tuned out.

At 10.25pm Great Yarmouth MP and Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis responded to Ms Dorries' tweet, saying she was "spot on" and that he understood the "hurt and anger" that people feel.

He wrote that the apology was "the right thing to do" and said of his boss "he is, as I've always seen, focused on guiding our country safely forward and through Covid".

Brandon Lewis MP

Great Yarmouth MP Brandon Lewis. - Credit: Richard Townshend Photography

On Thursday morning Mr Lewis was entrusted with a round of national media interviews, while Mr Johnson pulled out of a planned visit to a vaccination centre in Lancashire, where he would have faced media questions about his actions, because a family member tested positive for coronavirus.

And Mr Lewis did not get an easy ride in his efforts to urge people to wait for the outcome of the party probe inquiry by civil servant Sue Gray before making judgments on the prime minister’s future.

On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he described Mr Johnson's apology as "very, very sincere" and, of his attendance at the garden party, Mr Lewis said "with hindsight he regrets doing that".

That triggered an incredulous response from interviewer Nick Robinson.

File photo dated 04/09/12 of Radio 4's Nick Robinson, who has apologised to horrified listeners afte

The BBC's Nick Robinson. - Credit: PA

"Why did he need hindsight, Mr Lewis?" he said.

"What part of him did not understand, when he saw a garden full of people, carrying bottles of wine and eating food off a trestle table, what part of the leader of our country did not think, as people were cowering within their homes, as people are dying in hospitals, as loved ones are unable to touch their own relatives and parents, what part of the leader of our country did not recognise that that was inappropriate?”

Mr Lewis, for his part, said he was not there and he would - and this is something of a mantra now - wait for the results of Sue Gray's report.

Whether Mr Johnson will lost that long remains to be seen.

North Norfolk MP Duncan Baker

North Norfolk MP Duncan Baker. - Credit: Richard Townshend Photography

As time goes by, though, other MPs - including many local representatives - have become harsher in their criticism of the prime minister.

When we first approached our MPs in the wake of the allegations, few were willing to respond in detail. 

But North Norfolk MP Duncan Baker has, over the space of a few days, gone from vanilla comments about waiting for the investigation's completion to branding the revelations as "absolutely disgraceful".

He said the prime minister's tenure is now "very difficult". Mr Baker prides himself on representing the views of his constituents, so it is probably safe to say his inbox has been full of people, many of them Conservative voters, who are angry.

Chloe Smith, the North Norwich MP, and James Wild, the North West Norfolk MP, have both also issued fresh statements recognising people's anger while also urging people to wait for the inquiry results.

We can assume that they, too, have been hearing the anger voiced by constituents.

And it is the scale of that grassroots ire - perhaps as much as whatever the Gray report concludes - which will help determine whether MPs believe Boris Johnson is the man to lead them into the next set of elections.

Mr Johnson's fate might be in the hands of his MPs. But they will calculate their decisions on the strength of the public's rage.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter