Boris Johnson was given some respite from his beasting over Partygate today as a poll showed signs of a Tory recovery.
The PM has been facing the threat of a coup after the allegations of lockdown being flouted in No10 fuelled unrest on the government benches.
The ongoing rows have taken a huge toll on the Conservatives‘ popularity and that of Mr Johnson personally. But research for Opinium is the latest to suggest the party might be clawing back some ground.
Labour’s 10-point lead from a fortnight ago has been trimmed back to five points, with the PM’s ratings coming off rock bottom.
MPs say they have been reassured that public fury seems to have cooled somewhat, with rumours that Mr Johnson is planning a major clearout of No10 staff as part of ‘Operation Save Big Dog’.
However, he has risked a Tory backlash on another front today by vowing that the £12billion national insurance hike will go ahead in April.
And there are still potential landmines waiting for the premier, with top civil servant Sue Gray due to publish her Partygate report this week and police carrying out a formal probe.
Research for Opinium is the latest to suggest the Tories might be clawing back some ground
The PM has been facing the threat of a coup after the allegations of lockdown being flouted in No10 fuelled unrest on the government benches
Boris defies Tories over national insurance hike despite threats of Partygate mutiny
In a pointed show of unity after weeks of behind-the-scenes wrangling, the PM and Rishi Sunak killed off hopes that the eye-watering increase would be delayed or axed altogether.
They insisted in a joint article that the 1.25 percentage point bump to fund the NHS and social care reforms is the ‘right plan’ and it will go ahead in April.
But in a nod to the scale of anger among Conservative MPs, Mr Johnson and the Chancellor felt the need to stress they are ‘tax-cutting Thatcherites’ by instinct.
The decision to rule out a U-turn suggests that Mr Johnson is feeling more confident in his position as polls show glimmers of a Tory recovery.
There had been claims he was ‘wobbling’ and a rethink could form part of so-called ‘Operation Save Big Dog’ – the desperate effort to prevent a coup bid by MPs over Downing Street lockdown breaches and other rows.
The Opinium poll put Labour on 39 per cent support – down two on a fortnight ago – while the Conservatives were up three on 34 per cent.
The Liberal Democrats were unchanged on 9 per cent.
Mr Johnson’s approval rating crept up from a net minus 42 two weeks ago to a still-dire minus 37.
In contrast Keir Starmer’s rating was zero overall, having deteriorated four points.
Adam Drummond of Opinium said the findings feel like a ‘let-down for Labour’ despite their advantage.
‘Boris Johnson’s approval rating is still dire and, interestingly, Labour now lead on most issues including traditionally strong Tory areas such as crime and immigration. The Conservatives are also only barely ahead on ‘the economy’,’ he said.
‘But many of these shifts in issues are as much down to people moving from ‘Conservative’ to ‘neither’ as they are people moving to Labour and that, alongside the change in vote shares, shows just how volatile things are at the moment.’
Rumours are swirling that Mr Johnson will dramatically overhaul his Downing Street machine in response to anger among Tory MPs.
There is speculation chief of staff Dan Rosenfield, often criticised by backbenchers, could be moved to a civil service role.
Persistent whispers are circulating that David Canzini, a close ally of election guru Sir Lynton Crosby, could be brought in to beef up the No10 operation.
And highly-rated mandarin Antonia Romeo has been tipped for a promotion if Cabinet Secretary Simon Case is forced to move on.
He had allegedly lost a power struggle with the then Ms Symonds and other advisers.
‘There was the sound of lots of banging and dancing and drinking, and a number of Abba tracks – including a triumphalist Winner Takes It All,’ a source said.
A spokesman for Mrs Johnson said: ‘It is totally untrue to suggest Mrs Johnson held a party in the Downing Street flat on November 13, 2020.’
The Metropolitan Police could now investigate the party as part of its probe, and call on Mrs Johnson to provide written evidence.
Last week the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick announced officers have launched a criminal inquiry after assessing a dossier of evidence compiled by Ms Gray.
The police inquiry will reportedly focus on eight out of 17 parties looked at by Ms Gray.
The force then clarified it was looking at potential Covid breaches that are dealt with by fixed-term penalty notices.
It is understood that the Prime Minister’s wife has not been interviewed by Ms Gray’s inquiry or approached by the police.
Mr Cummings resigned as Mr Johnson’s de facto chief of staff after losing the alleged power struggle with Mrs Johnson.
He has previously claimed there was a ‘party’ in the Downing Street flat on the night of his departure.
Civil servants in the building at the time were advised by officials to go to the Downing Street flat to apologise for not sufficiently supporting the Prime Minister’s then-fiancée.
‘They were ordered to go up and kiss the ring,’ one said.
It comes as a former senior policeman suggested Downing Street staff who have been interviewed by Ms Gray could retract their testimony.
Former chief superintendent Dai Davies, who was in charge of Royal Protection, told the Daily Mail: ‘Now it’s a legal quagmire.
‘Anyone who has spoken to her inquiry could retract their evidence, arguing they did not know it could be used against them in a criminal inquiry.’
Sources said this was possible but any change of evidence would likely be sent directly to the police, rather than Ms Gray amending her report.
A source close to Ms Gray’s inquiry said the evidence she presented to police should be seen as a ‘starting point’.
The Met Police said suspects will be asked to give written evidence as part of its inquiry, which appeared to undermine reports the Prime Minister could be interviewed under caution.
Ms Gray’s long-awaited report is expected to be submitted to the Prime Minister within days.
Sue Gray is said to have been given evidence about a party held by Carrie’s (pictured right) friends in the No11 flat after Dominic Cummings (left) quit
The Met is under fire for its ‘farcical’ handling of Partygate. After first refusing to investigate, last week it announced a criminal inquiry days before the Sue Gray report was due to be published – and asking her to make ‘minimal references’ to parties at the centre of the row.
Former Supreme Court justice Lord Sumption said the police had ‘no legal right to demand that Sue Gray delay publication of her report and it is constitutionally undesirable that they have done so’.
Meanwhile, speculation mounted over an expected leadership contest to replace Mr Johnson, should he be deposed.
Yesterday Tom Tugendhat became the first Conservative MP to declare his intention to run in a leadership contest.
Asked in a Times Radio interview which will air today whether he would like to be Prime Minister, the Tonbridge & Malling MP said: ‘It would be a huge privilege.’
He added: ‘It’s up to all of us to put ourselves forward. And it’s up to the electorate, in the first case parliamentary colleagues, and in the second case the party, to choose.’
The former soldier added: ‘There isn’t a vacancy at the moment’, and insisted he had not been canvassing support.
Jeremy Hunt, the former Foreign Secretary who came second to Mr Johnson in the 2019 leadership contest, recently said his ambition to be leader had not ‘completely vanished’.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss are expected to be the frontrunners in a contest, with other potential contenders including Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, Home Secretary Priti Patel, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi and former Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt.
A No 10 spokeswoman said last night she could not comment on the Gray inquiry.