PM reaches for Plan B, but will his MPs do the same?

By Fraser Raleigh

For the second day in a row, all attention in Westminster was on the Downing Street press briefing room yesterday. But unlike the leaked footage showing No.10 aides laughing about how to explain away an alleged lockdown-breaking Christmas party last year, the faces last night were sombre as the Prime Minister confirmed that England would be moving to ‘Plan B’. 

In an attempt to slow the spread of cases of the Omicron variant, which the Prime Minister said are now doubling every two to three days, new rules will be brought in over the coming week. From tomorrow, face coverings will once again be required by law in most indoor settings. From Monday, those who can work from home will be asked to do so and – most controversially – vaccine passports will be mandatory for nightclubs and large venues from next Wednesday. 

Unsurprisingly, the Prime Minister’s announcement was met with a barrage of questions about how he could ask the public to observe the new rules if No.10 was found to have ignored the old ones. If the Prime Minister had hoped his announcement that the Cabinet Secretary would conduct an inquiry would put a lid on the story, he was quickly disappointed as more allegations emerged of parties in No.10 that – if true – would have been in breach of the restrictions. Riskiest of all, former chief adviser Dominic Cummings said there had been a party in the Prime Minister’s own No.10 flat during last November’s firebreak lockdown. 

The row has achieved something most Westminster scandals don’t: proper cut through with the public. Ant and Dec’s viral clip mocking the Prime Minister on Tuesday’s I’m A Celebrity has now had 6.5 million views on Twitter alone and unexpectedly put them centre stage at PMQs as they were commended by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer for being “ahead of the Prime Minister.” 

More worrying for the Prime Minister will be the mood of both the public and his own backbenchers. Three polls out this morning showed a majority of voters believe he should resign over the Christmas party, with The Times reporting that just nine percent of those surveyed by Opinium believed him when he said that no party took place. Scottish Conservatives leader Douglas Ross also came out strongly yesterday, saying that if the Prime Minister had misled Parliament then he would have to quit.  

Many of the Prime Minister’s other backbench colleagues have been equally unhelpful, with frustration over No.10’s inability to stop the row rumbling following hot on the heels of the unforced errors over Owen Paterson’s resignation that have led to a potentially dangerous by-election in North Shropshire next Thursday. In the Commons, anger at parties in No.10 last year fused with anger at the requirement to produce a COVID pass to enter them this year. Numerous Conservative MPs immediately came out strongly opposed, vowing to vote against them.  

Whether the dual rows over parties and passports develops into anything more dangerous than another mid-term stumble will depend on whether the cut through of the past few days is seen to be damaging to the Prime Minister’s personal long-term appeal. It will not help that fresh questions about what the Prime Minister knew about the financing of the renovation of the No.10 flat have also emerged today, following the Electoral Commission’s decision to fine the Conservative Party over its handling of donations. 

For now, there remains enough parliamentary support for the Prime Minister for the current row to be wounding but not fatal. But with Sunday marking two years since the 2019 general election and the stunning victory won in large parts because of the connection between Boris Johnson and parts of England that other Conservatives cannot reach, MPs will be in reflective mood as their attention turns to how to ensure they win the next one. The influential ConservativeHome website today said starkly that a vote of confidence has “suddenly become more likely than not”. 

Former leader William Hague once described the Conservatives as “an absolute monarchy, moderated by regicide”. No-one will be more aware of the truth of this than the Prime Minister himself, whose elevation to the throne was delivered following the most acrimonious removal of a Conservative leader since Margaret Thatcher. The Thatcher-like scale of the majority he subsequently delivered to his party gave them confidence he had indeed been the answer to the question of how to ‘Get Brexit Done’.  

If – for whatever reason – the Prime Minister suddenly looks like he may not be the answer to the next question the party needs to answer to win the next election, history suggests Conservative MPs will not be shy in reaching for a Plan B of their own.