Johnson defiant despite the crashing Gray wave

British leader may be clinging to aphorism of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger" after combative PMQs

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, left, rides in the back seat of a government car as he returns to Downing Street on Wednesday following Prime Minister's Questions at the Houses of Parliament. No 10 is awaiting the submission of Sue Gray's report into possible lockdown breaches.
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Boris Johnson’s authority appears to have been restored after a defiant Prime Minister’s Questions performance with his party seemingly behind him, shouting their support.

The Conservative rebellion has apparently been halted for now after a shadow whipping operation led by senior allies of Mr Johnson restored loyalty following failures by the official whips to enforce party discipline.

The turnaround for the British prime minister has come at a critical moment as he awaits publication of Sue Gray's report into Downing Street’s lockdown parties.

The tension was palpable, only to be replaced with the din of cheering when Mr Johnson entered the arena.

Mr Johnson's official spokesman confirmed on Wednesday afternoon that he had not yet received the senior civil servant's report, the conclusions of which could yet trigger a leadership contest.

It is understood that lawyers are carefully examining the report before agreeing to its publication.

When that happens, the prime minister will be given a few hours to read its findings and formulate a response before appearing before the Commons to make a statement and answer questions.

Key among his interrogators will be Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, who will come from a “lock-in” with the Gray report, attempting to land a knockout blow.

Boris Johnson speaking during Prime Minister's Question where the rebellion by his own MPs appeared to be quelled. Reuters

But his attack on Wednesday at PMQs appeared to diminish from the moment Mr Johnson entered the Commons chamber to cheers from his MPs.

That support appears to have been orchestrated by a subtle shadow whipping operation conducted over the last week by Chris Heaton Harris, Chis Pincher and former Education Secretary Gavin Williamson.

The trio, who have all formerly been government whips, cajoled and persuaded wavering MPs into giving full-throated backing for Mr Johnson, arguing that their disloyalty was destroying the government and helping Labour.

Given what has occurred in the past seven days, this PMQs was a turnaround for Mr Johnson.

During his previous appearance last Wednesday he was wounded by Mr Starmer’s rapier strikes, floored by an MP's defection to Labour and lanced by fellow Brexiteer David Davis’ call of “in the name of God, go”.

But he clung on, his detractors still without the 54 letters from MPs required to trigger a Conservative Party leadership election.

Downing Street’s firefighting continued, dealing with reports of MPs being blackmailed to support Mr Johnson, and on Sunday, when Nusrat Ghani said she had been sacked as a minister for her “Muslimness”.

That was followed on Monday by yet another report of a Downing Street birthday party for Mr Johnson that broke the rules.

Unsurprisingly, the media and political attendance at PMQs was high, with the press gallery that overlooks the chamber packed with more than 100 journalists. The Commons benches overflowed with MPs, too, and for the first time this year people were allowed to return to the public gallery.

Downing Street, where parties were held in lockdown.

The Labour benches opposite, perhaps lulled by the previous week’s PMQs, momentarily wavered at the tide of encouragement.

Mr Johnson waded straight in, drawing cheers from his party every time he spoke of success fighting Covid-19, addressed the backlog of medical operations, or emphasised Britain’s support for Ukraine. “We got all the big calls right,” he told Mr Starmer, before taking a sip of water from a glass placed next to the Dispatch Box.

The combative atmosphere grew so much that Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle had to intervene four times, warning finally that the next infraction would result in the perpetrator being ejected from the chamber.

Following Mr Starmer’s lead, opposition MPs took turns in calling for Mr Johnson’s resignation over the “shameful spectacle of the prime minister being investigated by the police”.

But in what appeared to be orchestrated support, every time the prime minister stood to reply he was met with cheers.

The opposition appeared to have run out of ammunition, the calls for resignation becoming monotonous.

They may well restock and rearm once Mrs Gray’s report is released, but there is a suggestion that Mr Johnson may already know he can ride out its conclusions, which would explain his bravura performance.

He may also be clinging on to the aphorism of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger".

For some, that could prove uncomfortable. A subtle suggestion of the ghost-whipping operation was the positioning of Chancellor Rishi Sunak three places to the left of Mr Johnson, rather than in his usual position at the prime minister’s right-hand side. Mr Sunak, a leadership contender, has been noticeably reticent in his support.

Spasm of regret

Throughout the stamping of feet, braying and thumping of hands, former prime minster Theresa May sat in a eye-catching duck-egg blue trouser suit, hands folded on her lap, utterly unmoved by the fray.

At one point her hands unclasped, perhaps dismayed that the moment of her political assassin’s own downfall had not yet come to pass.

Updated: January 28, 2022, 10:59 AM

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