Boris Johnson pleaded with Tory MPs to back his leadership rather than indulge in “pointless” internal warfare as he faced a crunch vote on his political future.
Conservative MPs will vote on Monday evening to decide whether they still have confidence in the Prime Minister following rows over lockdown-busting parties in No 10, splits over economic policy and divisions over his leadership style.
The Prime Minister wrote to Tory MPs and addressed them at a private meeting in Westminster two hours before voting began.
He reminded Conservatives that “under my leadership” the party had won its biggest electoral victory in 40 years and made a commitment to future tax cuts, with Chancellor Rishi Sunak expected to say more in the coming weeks.
He warned them that Tory splits risked the “utter disaster” of Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour entering Downing Street, propped up by the SNP.
“The only way we will let that happen is if we were so foolish as to descend into some pointless fratricidal debate about the future of our party,” he said, according to briefed extracts of his speech to the private meeting of Tory MPs.
He told MPs “I understand the anxieties of people who have triggered this vote” but “I humbly submit to you that this is not the moment for a leisurely and entirely unforced domestic political drama and months and months of vacillation from the UK.”
In an attempt to win round Tories concerned about his economic plans, Mr Johnson said: “Everyone understands the fiscal impact of Covid, the cost of clearing the backlogs, but the way out now is to drive supply side reform on Conservative principles and to cut taxes.”
In his separate letter to Conservatives, Mr Johnson said: “Tonight we have the chance to end weeks of media speculation and take this country forward, immediately, as one united party.”
It is an opportunity to “draw a line” under the issue, he added.
“I do not believe our voters will lightly forgive us if – just when they need us most to be focusing on them – we appear once again to be focusing on Westminster politics.”
Emerging from the Tory meeting, Foreign Office committee James Cleverly said Mr Johnson’s address had been “light on jokes”, with the Prime Minister in “serious mode”.
He said he expected the Prime Minister to win: “No-one can absolutely tell for certain, but the tone, the mood of that room gives me a feeling that actually the vast bulk of the parliamentary party wants us to move on from this row, wants us to focus on what we should be focusing on which is serving the people who elect us and also the position that we play in the world at an incredibly turbulent time.”
The alternative was a “protracted period of introspection”, he warned.
The Prime Minister was informed early on Sunday afternoon that he would face the vote after more than 15% of the party’s MPs – 54 parliamentarians – had submitted formal letters, emails or messages saying they had lost confidence in him.
Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, confirmed he had received the 54 letters from Conservative MPs needed to trigger the vote on Sunday with a “clear indication” that there would be more to come following the conclusion of the Platinum Jubilee festivities.
The secret ballot will take place at Westminster on Monday between 6pm and 8pm, with the result announced at 9pm.
A steady stream of Tory MPs called publicly for the Prime Minister to stand down in the wake of Sue Gray’s report into breaches of the Covid regulations in No 10 and Whitehall.
But Tory concerns go far wider, covering the Prime Minister’s policies which have seen the tax burden reach the highest in 70 years and concerns about his approach to ethics and cultural issues.
In order to oust the Prime Minister, however, the rebels will need 180 MPs, and allies of Mr Johnson made clear he is determined to fight to stay on.
A succession of Cabinet ministers appeared on TV to voice support for the Prime Minister while Government colleagues and backbenchers also went on social media as part of a co-ordinated operation to bolster Mr Johnson’s position.
Brexit opportunities minister Jacob Rees-Mogg said victory by a single vote would secure Mr Johnson’s job.
“One is enough, it’s no good saying that the rules of the party say something and then behind it unofficially there is some other rule that nobody knows and is invented for the purpose,” he told Sky News.
“I obviously want the Prime Minister to get as big a majority as possible, I think that would be helpful and it would close this matter down between now and the next general election, which would be good for the country, good for the Conservative Party, but one is enough.”
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said winning the vote “is victory” even if by a single vote.
“We live in a democracy and it’s absolutely right that a democratic decision is what we respect,” he said.
Attorney General Suella Braverman said “technically, yes” a single vote win would be enough for Mr Johnson to continue, but “I’m sure that he will win with a larger margin than that”.
But in reality a major revolt would leave him damaged, perhaps fatally so, particularly with two by-elections on June 23 which could see further blows delivered to his leadership.
Mr Johnson has already received the resignation of his anti-corruption tsar, John Penrose, who said the Prime Minister had breached the ministerial code over the partygate scandal and should quit.
Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said he would be voting against Mr Johnson, having heard “loud and clear the anger at the breaking of Covid rules” and “even more so at the statements to Parliament from the Prime Minister on this topic”.
In a further indication of the anger felt on the Tory benches, former minister Jesse Norman – who had been a long-standing supporter of Mr Johnson – published a scathing letter to the Prime Minister withdrawing his support.
Mr Norman said the Gray report showed Mr Johnson “presided over a culture of casual law-breaking at 10 Downing Street” and “to describe yourself as ‘vindicated’ by the report is grotesque”.
But his criticism of Mr Johnson was far broader, including the “ugly” policy of sending migrants on a one-way trip to Rwanda, the “unnecessary and provocative” privatisation of Channel 4, the ban on noisy protests which “no genuinely Conservative government” should have introduced, and the lack of a “sense of mission” in his administration.
“You are simply seeking to campaign, to keep changing the subject and to create political and cultural dividing lines mainly for your advantage, at a time when the economy is struggling, inflation is soaring and growth is anaemic at best,” Mr Norman said, warning that Mr Johnson continuing in office would be “potentially catastrophic for this country”.
Former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, who stood against Mr Johnson for the leadership in 2019, warned that the Tories would lose the next general election if the Prime Minister is allowed to remain in post.
“Having been trusted with power, Conservative MPs know in our hearts we are not giving the British people the leadership they deserve,” he said.
He added: “Today’s decision is change or lose. I will be voting for change.”
But Cabinet ministers rallied round Mr Johnson – including those who could seek to replace him if he is forced out.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said: “The Prime Minister has my 100% backing in today’s vote and I strongly encourage colleagues to support him.”
Mr Sunak said “the PM has shown the strong leadership our country needs”.
Mr Johnson spoke to Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky on Monday morning as aides insisted he was carrying on with the job without being distracted by Tory infighting.
However, in a break from the usual protocol, Mr Johnson did not appear on Downing Street – where he would have faced a barrage of press questions – for the visit of Estonian counterpart Kaja Kallas.