Sir Winston Churchill famously said: “The opposition occupies the benches in front of you, but the enemy sits behind you.”
With the Conservative Party having once again descended into civil war, Boris Johnson could be forgiven for wondering which poses a bigger threat to his premiership right now – Sue Gray’s eagerly awaited report or his own backbenchers.
As the Prime Minister hunkers down in No 10, braced for the civil servant’s findings on the partygate saga, Downing Street continues to do battle with Mr Johnson’s own Tory colleagues.
If it wasn’t bad enough that William Wragg, the MP for Hazel Grove, has brought in the police over complaints of “blackmail and intimidation” by the whips’ office, the Government now faces yet another inquiry over former transport minister Nusrat Ghani’s claims that she was “reshuffled” in February 2020 because of her “Muslimness”.
Yet amid the claims and counter-claims, with chief whip Mark Spencer vehemently denying that he made an issue of Ms Ghani’s religion, there is a tie that binds those currently causing Mr Johnson the most strife.
It has not gone unnoticed that Ms Ghani and Mr Wragg – who has openly called for the Prime Minister to resign over “a series of unforced errors are deeply damaging to the perception of the party” – are both members of the executive committee of the 1922 committee of Conservative backbenchers.
The group, which meets weekly, provides a way for backbenchers to co-ordinate and discuss their views independently of frontbenchers.
Named after a small dining group of new members elected in 1922, the organisation’s chairman, Sir Graham Brady, oversees the election of party leaders, or any Conservative party-led vote of no confidence in a current leader. Such a vote can be triggered by 15 per cent of Tories (there are 359 MPs as of January 2022, requiring 54 to trigger).
Also a member of the executive, elected in January 2020 after Mr Johnson won an 80-seat majority at the 2019 general election, is treasurer Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, a regular thorn in the Government’s side who has called for Mr Johnson to “radically reform the way the No 10 operation works”.
The executive committee’s secretaries, Gary Sambrook and Bob Blackman, have both been highly critical of the Prime Minister in recent weeks.
All six members of the executive committee rebelled over vaccine passports last month – another factor giving rise to suspicions of the 1922 leading a “coup” of sorts.
As one senior Tory put it: “The thing that appears to unite the executive of the 1922 committee is their opposition to Boris Johnson and his Government.
“They are trying to bounce the new intake to move against the Prime Minister because they cannot make progress with the older hands.”
‘Ruthless and feckless’
Suggesting that they are working with figures like David Davis, who last week told Mr Johnson, “in the name of God, go”, they added: “Davis is a perpetual assassin and they are working together to try to spook the junior MPs.
“What they don’t seem to realise is that they will confound the problem if they turn on their own leader because it just makes the party look both ruthless and feckless at the same time.”
Davis insists that he is working “alone”, while 1922 figures deny there is any conspiracy against Mr Johnson. Pointing out that its officers are “elected individually” and act in that way, a senior 1922 source added: “The Executive is not acting in some sort of concert on this – the Executive tends to be pretty representative of the spectrum of the party.”
Despite their protestations, however, there is no doubt that the 1922 is increasingly resembling a recruiting ground for Mr Johnson’s enemies.
Mr Sambrook, who was elected to Parliament in 2019 in a so-called “Red Wall” seat, is even rumoured to have sent in a letter of no confidence in the Prime Minister. (The MP for Birmingham Northfield has neither confirmed nor denied the reports, although he said of partygate: “I would expect anyone who is found to have broken the law to seriously consider their position in Government, and that includes the Prime Minister.”)
Gary Sambrook, one of the executive committee’s secretaries, is rumoured to have sent in a letter of no confidence in the Prime Minister
In a sign of the increasingly fractious relationship between No 10 and the 1922, Sir Graham, who is also closely aligned to the Covid Research Group (CRG), chaired by outspoken Johnson critic Mark Harper, the former chief whip, was almost replaced by the more pro-Johnson Heather Wheeler last summer.
Some say surviving the plot to oust him has made him a more “emboldened” leader of disgruntled backbenchers, especially in light of recent events. Writing for the Telegraph last month, he described the Government’s Covid measures as a “disastrous assault on liberty”.
The reaction to partygate among the executive is probably best summed up by its secretary, Mr Blackman, who said: “Many of my constituents have sacrificed so much – not being able to visit sick or grieving relatives or attend funerals. I am clear that those who set the rules must abide by them or face the consequences.”
The 1922 committee also has seven executive members who haven’t exactly been singing from No 10’s hymn sheet either.
One is Karl McCartney, the MP for Lincoln, who has consistently opposed lockdown restrictions since September 2020, as well as Covid passports for nightclubs last December. He was also one of thirty Conservative MPs who defied Mr Johnson to oppose the law on mandatory jabs for care home workers in 2021. Yet he remains supportive of the Prime Minister, inviting him to his constituency’s Christmas market last month.
Fellow executive member Sir Bernard Jenkin has similarly followed the Government line of waiting for the result of Ms Gray’s report before passing judgment on partygate, as has Jason McCartney, the MP for Colne Valley and Nicola Richards, the MP for West Bromwich East. “The PM helped win us seats like mine, he got Brexit done and has pulled us through the pandemic,” she said. “We at least owe it to him to wait for the report before making any judgments about the future.”
Sheryll Murray, another executive member of the 1922 and the MP for South East Cornwall, has publicly supported Mr Johnson’s Covid policy but voted against the government over letting Huawei into the 5G network in March 2020.
Similarly, Johnson loyalist Martin Vickers has been supportive of the Government’s covid policy but critical over partygate, telling his Cleethorpes constituents: “It was irresponsible, reckless and unacceptable and disciplinary actions, and possibly prosecutions, should follow.”
Red Waller Richard Holden, who won Durham North West against all the odds in 2019, has arguably been the most vocal of the seven over whether Mr Johnson can lead the Tories to the ballot box in 2024. “No, it’s definitely not [a yes Boris can survive],” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last week. “Things will come to a head with the Sue Gray report…That’s going to be very important.” He also described Sue Gray as “formidable” and “not a pushover”.
It seems the same words could be used to describe the band of backbenchers that have given the Prime Minister cause to watch his back.
Executive committee members (Clockwise) Nusrat Ul-Ghani, Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, Graham Brady, Bob Blackman, William Wragg and Gary Sambrook
Executive committee members
Sir Graham Brady
Described the Government’s Covid measures as a “disastrous assault on liberty” and voted against vaccine passports in December 2021.
Warned the rising cost of living was a major worry for voters.
Remained schtum on partygate.
Voted against vaccine passports.
Member of anti-lockdown Covid Recovery Group.
One of 30 Tory MPs who voted against Johnson’s aid cuts in June 2021.
Claims chief whip Mark Spencer said her “Muslimness”cost her her job as transport minister in the February 2020 reshuffle.
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown
Voted against vaccine passports.
On partygate, he said: “It depends a lot on what Sue Gray’s report says and whether she says directly that he broke the rules. If she says, well, it was a general culture and you know, there’s a fudge, I think then he’s got to do several things.”
He called for the PM to “radically reform the way the No 10 operation works”.
Voted against vaccine passports.
On Partygate, he said: “We need to get to the bottom of all these activities in No 10, adding: “Many of my constituents have sacrificed so much – not being able to visit sick or grieving relatives or attend funerals. I am clear that those who set the rules must abide by them or face the consequences.”
Voted against vaccine passports.
On partygate, called for PM to resign, saying: “A series of unforced errors are deeply damaging to the perception of the party. The Prime Minister’s position is untenable.”
Accused whips of “blackmailing and intimidating” MPs who wanted to topple Boris Johnson and urged colleagues to report cases to police.
Voted against covid passports.
This month he retweeted tweets defending Boris against partygate allegations, and last month invited the PM to his constituency’s Christmas market.
Sir Bernard Jenkin
Praised Boris’s handling of Covid when Plan B restrictions dropped: “I am absolutely delighted and I think this shows Boris Johnson called it right at the beginning of the Omicron variant when he refused to be panicked into much more severe restrictions.”
On Partygate he has followed the government line, said “we must wait” for Sue Gray’s report.
Back the Prime Minister in November 2021 saying: “I am absolutely clear that the Prime Minister is the right person to take this country forward.”
In 2020 he demanded a clear road map out of lockdown and said Dominic Cummings position was “untenable” after the Barnard Castle debacle.
Has regularly tweeted the government’s Covid policy.
In January 2022 she tweeted in support of the PM and regarding the Sue Gray report: “The PM helped win us seats like mine, he got brexit done and has pulled us through the pandemic. We at least owe it to him to wait for the report before making any judgments about the future.”
Voted against the government over letting Huawei into the 5G network in March 2020
Has publicly supported Mr Johnson’s Covid policy, e.g. tweeting Plan B policy, retweeting PM’s Covid announcements.
She was critical of Cummings but fell short of urging him to go.
On “Partygate”, said: “No, it’s definitely not [a yes Boris can survive]. Things will come to a head with the Sue Gray report…That’s going to be very important.” He also described Sue Gray as “formidable” and “not a pushover”.
Publicly supported Boris over Tories’ defeat in North Shropshire by-election.
Defended PM in October 2021, criticising BBC’s Nick Robinson’s interviewing technique: “It’s bizarre for the BBC to welcome the Prime Minister on for the first time in ages and then cut him off in his prime.”
Discussing Partygate allegations with constituents, he said: “It was irresponsible, reckless and unacceptable and disciplinary actions, and possibly prosecutions, should follow.”
Said this weekend: “The truth is that none of this should have happened. I despair at the management structure in Downing Street that this could happen,” adding that Mr Johnson should have left immediately.
Very supportive of the Government’s Covid policy