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Watch out, there are sharks about!

By Paul Kelly
18 January 2022

By Paul Kelly

I am not sure whether Boris Johnson ever was much of a surfer in his youth and if so, whether his apparent desire for carefree adventures ever took him to the great paradise for board riders that is the coast of South Africa? If he was, and I grant that for some this is hard to imagine, then he would have a different understanding of the term “Men in Grey Suits.”  An expression that probably runs more than a little chill down his spine at the moment. 

For South African surfers, Men in Grey Suits are man-eating sharks. These are most often of the Great White variety, made famous by the film “Jaws”, that swim in the shadows and then make a meal of you before you really know it. 

 Everyone knows that sharks are attracted by the presence of blood in the water and the more there is then the more excited they get, whilst still remaining just below the surface.  

 Johnson probably doesn’t have time to go to surfing in South Africa right now  and anyway I am not sure whether he would be covered by the same Covid regulations as the rest of us. However, I am fairly confident he too is worried about the eponymous Men in Grey Suits. This is of course something of a sexist term,  and a throwback to a different age, but the term traditionally refers to the 18 backbenchers who make up the so called 1922 Committee of Conservative backbench MPs. These are often regarded as the polite but clandestine assassins of the Conservative Party. They were made famous after a visitation from them was supposed to have brought about the resignation of Margaret Thatcher as leader and Prime Minister.  Indeed, the blood spilled in that encounter still haunts the party to this day. 

The 1922 Committee’s 18 members meet on a weekly basis. They oversee the process for the election of Conservative Party leaders including votes of no confidence (for more information on how this could happen with Johnson, see my colleague Fraser’s piece here). 

The current chair is Sir Graham Brady who has been in post since 2010, apart from a brief interim period when he stood down to take soundings on a possible leadership run for himself in 2019. Sir Graham enjoys an almost mythical status within the Conservative Party for his sense of propriety and discretion.  

So, whatever colour of attire they wear on the fateful day, will the Men in Grey Suits actually turn up any time soon? This will largely depend on the feedback Conservative MPs have picked up over the weekend from their constituencies and by all accounts they have been inundated with vociferous views. The Prime Minister is an expert in weathering a storm like this simply by waiting it out, in the certain knowledge that his party don’t have a shoe-in replacement.  But then again, such storms have been crashing against his door with an urgent regularity that has alarmed his party. 

Alternatively, the blood maybe drawn by Sue Gray (that colour again), the senior civil servant who is leading and will report on the investigation into the parties that seemed to have been an everyday event at Number 10 during the lockdowns. If her findings, due by the end of this week, define Mr Johnson and alleged party goers as implicitly in the wrong, then the Prime Minister might negate the need for a shark mauling by resigning before he is pushed.   

If on the other hand Ms Gray’s report is deemed too blunt to cause a sufficiently large crimson stain in the water, then Johnson could remain in post during the local government elections in May. Should they go badly, then the sharks will start circling again, released by frightened Conservative MPs who fear the results being replicated at a General Election. Labour is now 10 percentage points ahead in some opinion polls, a position they have not been in since 2013. This is the type of lead Labour needs to rebuild some of the so called “Red Wall” of northern, traditionally Labour held seats the Conservatives swept up at the last election. For the Conservative MPs in those seats, Johnson could quickly become a vote loser with the same force as he was a vote winner in 2019; in which case Sir Graham will once again be looking for his chief shark uniform.