Boris Johnson was planning a major overhaul of his Downing Street operation on Thursday as part of efforts to save his job, as Rishi Sunak’s allies insisted the chancellor support the prime minister.
Number 10 Sunak looked cautiously and feared the chancellor’s silence for most of Wednesday – when Johnson admits he attended a Downing Street party during confinement – was a sign of his faltering support.
“You have to lean in or get out,” one minister told Johnson loyally. But Sunak’s allies insisted the chancellor “support the prime minister” and did not intend to resign. “It’s an absolute mess,” said one.
Johnson endured his worst day as prime minister when he told MPs he was attending a “bring your own booze” party in the Downing Street garden during England’s first coronavirus lock-in in May 2020. He said he thought so is a job opportunity.
Although Johnson’s position remains in jeopardy and a feverish mood hangs over the Conservative party, confirmation that Sunak Johnson supports – at least for now – has reduced the looming threat level.
Johnson’s team hopes that speculation about his leadership will subside until the publication of a report by Sue Gray, a senior civil servant, on allegations of liquor parties in Downing Street during Covid-19 restrictions in 2020.
The prime minister is unlikely to be seen in public next week after a member of his immediate family tested positive for Covid, Downing Street said. His disappearance from sight could lower the political temperature.
The Gray report will only arrive next week at the earliest and the expectation in Downing Street is that she will take the blame widely for what happened and will not inflict a fatal blow on the prime minister, according to government insiders.
The Metropolitan Police indicated Thursday that they will not investigate any possible violations of Covid restrictions at Downing Street until Gray’s investigation is completed. “If the investigation identifies evidence of conduct that may be a criminal offense, it will be passed on to the Met for further consideration,” it said.
The Gray report could open up the prospect of Johnson eliminating officials and political advisers in his scorching Downing Street operation while saving his own job. Tory MPs have been begging for months to revamp their core squad.
One longtime Johnson supporter said: “The best case scenario is for Sue Gray to report back. . . and he can then respond with a convincing change of guard in Number 10. ”
The changes are expected to focus on Martin Reynolds, the head of Johnson’s office, who invited 100 staff members to the “bring your own booze” Downing Street garden party in May 2020, and Chief of Staff Dan Rosenfield, according to people informed of the situation. . .
Johnson hopes to combine staff changes with a domestic policy reversal – particularly the launch of a White Paper on the “leveling” of backward areas – and an end to coronavirus restrictions in England.
England’s so-called Plan B measures – including homemaking and Covid vaccine passports for mass events – expire on January 26 and Whitehall officials are increasingly confident that the restrictions do not need to be extended.
Johnson hopes he will be justified in his decision not to tighten restrictions last month, as the Omicron coronavirus variant has spread rapidly.
One Tory strategist said: “You’ve seen Boris’ polling station numbers improve as the Covid tide turned over Christmas and the PM’s decision to keep the line paid off. The same could happen again in February – he will at least so hope. ”
Many conservative MPs expect Johnson to survive until May 5, when local elections will serve as a major test of whether the prime minister remains a political winner. “If we lose badly, he is out,” said one MP.
However, Johnson’s position could be threatened sooner if Tory MPs cause a vote of no confidence in him by 54 Conservatives submitting letters to senior backbenchers, or as senior ministers trying to force his departure by resigning himself. A YouGov poll Labor on Thursday gave a 10-point lead over the Conservatives.
One Johnson ally said his room for error now is almost non-existent. “Everything must go right so that he can survive it, no further mistakes. Boris realizes he has lost another of his nine lives and it is a brush with political death. “
Sunak traveled to north of Devon on Wednesday, meaning he was absent when Johnson issued his partial apology to MPs over his attendance at the Downing Street Garden Party in May 2020.
It was only early in the evening that Sunak, seen as the forerunner to succeed Johnson, tweeted: “The Prime Minister has rightly apologized and I support his request for patience while Sue Gray conducts her inquiry.”
Although the wording seemed lukewarm, Sunak’s allies on Thursday said it was similar to tweets sent out by other ministers. They added Sunak and Johnson held talks in Downing Street on Wednesday night on “more important issues facing the country”, including the cost of living crisis.
Former Labor Minister Peter Mandelson said Sunak found himself in a similar situation to David Miliband, when the then foreign minister in the late 2000s feared he would challenge Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
“The Conservatives know it’s time to move on and there are candidates available, but I feel for Rishi Sunak,” Mandelson said. “Slacks off too soon and it looks like an obscene haste. Hesitates too long and it seems like indecision, probably as happened with David Miliband. “