How an electrifying moment in parliament and fuming Tory MPs show toxicity towards Boris Johnson is spreading throughout the party

An absolutely extraordinary PMQs.

Millions of people tuned in last week across various channels to watch the PM give an explanation of that party in Number 10 on 20 May.

Today people were no doubt watching to see how he would perform as rumours now build that there could be a confidence vote against him triggered by his own backbenchers.

I should stress that no one really knows if and when that threshold of 54 letters to trigger a ballot will come, although the mood in the party seems to now be crystallising that he won’t be the man to lead them into the next election.

As one Conservative political operative put it to me on Wednesday: “Johnson won support because he could reach a wider base of voters as the Heineken politician who polled better than the party but now he is a drag anchor on colleagues so it really is a question of when not if.”

This is the context in which the PM came to PMQs, the opening of which dealt him the first of two material body blows as the Conservative MP for Bury South, Christian Wakeford, opened the session by defecting to the Labour Party.

Sir Keir Starmer was beaming, Mr Johnson’s benches fuming with colleagues shocked and incensed by the defection.

But that a Tory MP and former councillor crossed the floor to the Labour benches – that is extremely difficult for any PM.

Follow live partygate updates as high profile Tory calls for PM to go

A view of Bury South MP Christian Wakeford sitting on the opposition benches during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London. Picture date: Wednesday January 19, 2022.
Christian Wakeford has defected to the Labour Party

Labour party sources are telling me this is Operation Domino, implying there is more to come, while Tory sources suggest Mr Wakeford’s shock defection helped the PM, in the short term at least, prompting some to perhaps reconsider putting letters in as tribal politics kicked back in.

And the PM did fight back during this PMQs, putting in a far more buoyant performance to MPs than he did in our interview on Tuesday, when he appeared downcast and defeated.

But he was soon deflated once more by the powerful – and dangerous – intervention from Tory grandee David Davis, who became the first Conservative MP to tell the prime minister to go in an electrifying moment.

A Labour operative sent me a tweet – dated 2018 and linked to Brexit – from a Johnson loyalist Nadine Dorries minutes after the former cabinet minister made his move: “David Davis is ex SAS. He’s trained to survive. He’s also trained to take people out.”

Boris Johnson is unpopular with some of his own MPs after it emerged he attended a Downing Street party during lockdown
Boris Johnson is unpopular with some of his own MPs after it emerged he attended a Downing Street party during lockdown

These two painful bookends to PMQs – despite the PM showing some fight – speaks to the precariousness of his position.

The uncertainty in Westminster is crippling, the mood almost unbearable and the relationship between the government and rebels is getting deeply unpleasant.

There is talk that Mr Wakeford was sent over the edge by whips threatening the future of his seat with boundary changes.

One rebel told me that the briefing, backbiting and bullying was only serving to harden resolve and deepen splits.

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Cheers as Tory MP defects to Labour

“The excessively aggressive approach from Number 10 is not helping. They are like a rabies-ridden dog that’s been cornered and is lashing out.”

A Downing Street in freefall and the business of government on hold as everyone watches and waits.

A group of the 2019 intake are ready to put in letters, resigned to the reality that Mr Johnson is more likely to lose them their seats than save them in the next election.

There’s been fevered speculation that they might move before the Gray report, but one informed figure tells me “more excitable” colleagues have been implored to wait for the Gray report to be published, as any confidence vote ahead of it would be foolhardy. Mr Johnson would win it – and they wouldn’t be able to call one again for another year.

Keir Starmer
Sir Keir Starmer was beaming throughout PMQs on Wednesday

But the real question now is whether Boris Johnson, however hard he fights, can secure his political future beyond a stay of execution.

Some of his cabinet supporters are convinced he can, with one cabinet minister telling me on Tuesday night that he’s going to face an incredibly bumpy four weeks but can make it to the other side.

Those two body blows on Wednesday appears to have shaken Conservative MPs and might have bought Mr Johnson a little bit of breathing space.

But those dramatic interventions on Wednesday from members of both the old guard and the new points to how toxicity is now spreading towards Boris Johnson throughout his parliamentary party.

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