Boris Johnson has told Tory MPs “we’ll get through this” as he prepared to receive the long-awaited Sue Gray report into lockdown-breaking parties in Whitehall and fight for his political life.
Johnson’s allies have begun circling the wagons on a crucial day at Westminster, with one minister warning rebel Tory MPs that if they topple the prime minister they could force an unwanted early general election.
Gray, a senior civil servant charged with investigating the “partygate scandal” in Downing Street and other government departments, has completed her report.
But by early Wednesday morning she had yet to hand it over to Johnson. “We haven’t had it,” a Number 10 official said. Unless the prime minister sees the report soon, publication could slip into Thursday, adding to the febrile atmosphere in the House of Commons.
Johnson had been preparing to make a statement to MPs on the report after prime minister’s question time at noon on Wednesday, but that timetable appears to be slipping.
Westminster is awash with speculation that Gray has seen pictures of parties held during England’s Covid lockdown as well as WhatsApp messages. The Metropolitan Police announced on Tuesday it was launching its own inquiry.
One official offered an alternative view that the Gray report would be “quite thin” and would not name names of those responsible for organising the parties, leaving Johnson to draw his own conclusions.
Nevertheless, Johnson’s allies have told MPs that the prime minister will act decisively after receiving the Gray report to shake up a “drinking culture” at the heart of government and overhaul his team. A shake-up of Johnson’s Number 10 operation and the government party management operation — the whips’ office — is expected.
Johnson told MPs on Tuesday night he believed he would survive with his job intact. “He said we’ll get through this.” The MP added: “He genuinely believes he’ll get out of this.”
However some rebels are expected to use the report to push for a vote of no confidence in the prime minister. A total of 54 Tory MPs must submit letters to Sir Graham Brady, chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, in order to trigger a vote.
One wavering Tory MP met Johnson on Tuesday. “We spoke for 20 minutes and he did show contrition for what had happened, but I’m waiting for the report”, they said.
Liz Truss, foreign secretary, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday: “I suspect we won’t have much longer to wait for the Sue Gray report where we can have a fuller view of what exactly happened.”
Truss, a potential leadership contender, added: “I believe the prime minister should continue in office. I think he’s doing a great job. He’s apologised, he’s admitted that mistakes were made.”
With his premiership on a knife edge, Johnson’s allies have deployed a number of arguments to try to keep the rebels at bay. Jacob Rees-Mogg claimed if they ditched Johnson, an election would follow.
“It is my view that we have moved, for better or worse, to essentially a presidential system and that therefore the mandate is personal rather than entirely party,” he told BBC’s Newsnight. “Any prime minister would be very well advised to seek a fresh mandate.’
Rees-Mogg’s contention is not supported by recent precedent; previous prime ministers who acquired power halfway through a parliament — including Theresa May, Gordon Brown and John Major — have not immediately called an election.
Other supporters of Johnson have tried to play down the significance of the party allegations, suggesting the prime minister should be allowed to focus on more important issues such as the Ukraine crisis.
Conor Burns, Northern Ireland minister, said Johnson had not been aware his wife and staff had organised a surprise birthday party for him during the lockdown in June 2020. “It was not a premeditated, organised party,” he told C4 News. “He was, in a sense, ambushed with a cake.”
Those briefed on Gray’s inquiry said the report would take the form of her conclusions, running to many pages, but it would not include a significant amount of evidence from her interviews, such as photos or messages.
One official said Gray would produce a precis and not a longer report that requires redactions — fearful that a longer report would bring accusations of a whitewash.
“Everything that we give to the prime minister will be published,” a government insider said. “He won’t get a full dossier of every single WhatsApp or witness statement.”