Politics

Sue Gray’s No10 parties report: Now Tory MPs will have to show their hands, says Kirsty Strickland

ON Sunday, Andrew Neil made his long-awaited return to mainstream broadcasting with a C4 dispatches documentary Boris Johnson: Has He Run Out of Road?.

The answer given by the programme was a resounding “maybe’’.

That’s because whether the prime minister has run out of road will depend largely on how Tory MPs respond to the publication of the pared-back version of Sue Gray’s report into Downing St parties, which found “failures of leadership and judgment” in Downing Street.

And Tory MPs, especially those from the 2019 intake, are not at all easy to predict.

One of the most interesting parts of Andrew Neil’s documentary came from a series of interviews with Red Wall Tory MP Lee Anderson.

He began by sharing, for the first time, that his wife has cystic fibrosis.

Like so many others, Mr Anderson wasn’t able to visit his wife when she was ill in hospital during lockdown. He was angry that he followed the rules while those in Downing St partied.

Later, as Andrew Neil documents those frantic few days of plots, defections and front page misery, Lee Anderson is suddenly offered an audience with the prime minister.

His colleagues received similar invitations. It was reported last week that the prime minister had been conducting multiple face-to-face meetings a day to try to placate the would-be rebels.

In Lee Anderson’s case, that charm offensive seemed to work.

“All that infrastructure that was promised in my patch is going to get delivered,’’ he said afterwards.

“[The prime minister] looked tired, I felt sorry for him.’’

It seems that the famously lazy Boris Johnson is remarkably proactive when it comes to his own interests.

There has been a raft of policy measures churned out by No 10 in recent weeks. Some old, some new, some recycled and nearly all without the level of detail that you would expect from a government that has given careful thought to its proposals.

The first chunk of steak thrown during Operation Red Meat was a pledge to change how the BBC is funded. In a chaotic Commons statement, the Culture Secretary couldn’t say what would replace the licence fee but she seemed sure that somebody, at some point, would come up with an idea.

And according to the chief secretary to the Treasury, Simon Clarke, a decision will be made “in the course of the next few days’’ on whether mandatory vaccination for NHS workers in England will be scrapped. In a development that will please many Tory backbenchers who have been critical of the policy, a U-turn looks imminent.

We don’t yet know what this sudden change of heart will mean for the 40,000 care home staff who lost their jobs overnight when a similar policy came into force for them last November.

In his efforts to throw out policies and platitudes to stave off letters of No Confidence, Boris Johnson is, true to type, leaving chaos in his wake.

Perhaps Operation Red Meat should be renamed. Operation Kitchen Sink seems more appropriate.

Boris Johnson’s defenders haven’t had much material to work with as they humiliate themselves on television to protect the prime minister. You know you’re in trouble when the case for the defence rests on “he was ambushed by a cake’’.

Polls show that the public has already made up its mind on Partygate. Most people think Boris Johnson lied about parties and most people believe he should do the decent thing and resign.

Against that backdrop, the only thing supportive MPs have in left in their arsenal is to return to Boris Johnson’s greatest hits.

Which is why they are suddenly so keen to remind us that Boris Johnson fulfilled his election promise to “Get Brexit Done’’.

The details, naturally, are skimmed over. They say nothing of the disruption it has brought and there has been no mention of the many Brexit dividends that were promised that show no sign of ever being delivered.

Yet now, on the second anniversary of our departure from the EU, the prime minister is promising a Brexit Freedoms Bill which he says will ‘unleash the benefits of Brexit’ by cutting £1b of ‘red tape’ for British businesses.

When can we expect this new Brexit unicorn? “In due course’’.

Anything – however scant on detail – that includes the words Brexit and Freedom is sure to please Tory backbenchers, but not everybody is happy.

The SNP’s Angus Robertson says the plan was announced with “little discussion, consultation with, or indeed respect for, the Scottish parliament and government’’.

“Within days of the UK government promising more respectful ways of working, we were informed of what is clearly a rushed exercise over the weekend with nothing more than a vague verbal briefing.

“If these proposals involve changing the law in devolved policy areas, then pressing ahead without the consent of the Scottish parliament would demonstrate yet again the UK government’s intent to undermine devolution.”

This latest row between the Scottish and UK governments is just one more mess that Boris Johnson will have to clean up if he survives the next few weeks and clings on to power.

On Monday, the prime minister responded to the Sue-Lite report in a House of Commons statement.

He began by saying sorry. “I understand the anger that people feel.’’

“I get it. And I will fix it.’’

His colleagues in the chamber, including former prime minister Theresa May, appeared unconvinced by his latest attempt at contrition.

In the coming days, Tory MPs will, at long last, have to show their hands.

Have they been persuaded by Operation Kitchen Sink? Will they stand by their man?

Or will they decide – as the public already have – that his apologies and promises are as hollow as those from an unfaithful spouse that has been caught in a lie.

Whether Boris Johnson really has run out of road will depend more on those political calculations being made in the coming days than the scant contents and many redactions of the Sue Gray report.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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