ANDREW PIERCE: Boris Johnson was betrayed by a very Tory coup

ANDREW PIERCE: Boris Johnson was betrayed and toppled by a very Tory coup, inside accounts reveal

With the benefit of hindsight, it was obvious something wasn’t right. Boris Johnson looked unusually forlorn, occasionally holding his head in his hands, while sitting just yards from members of the Royal Family in the grandstand for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Pageant.

Even worse for the Prime Minister, the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer was almost within touching distance as the entertainment unfolded in front of Buckingham Palace.

The thunderbolt had struck as he was preparing to leave Downing Street for the short drive to Buckingham Palace with his wife Carrie. His mobile telephone vibrated and his heart sank when he saw the name flashing on the screen. It was Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the powerful 1922 Committee of Tory MPs.

Boris felt physically sick. Brady, he knew, was going to be the bearer of the worst possible tidings.

Politely but firmly, the 1922 Committee chairman told the Prime Minister the 15 per cent threshold of Tory MPs submitting letters of no confidence in him had been passed. It meant there was to be a vote on the Prime Minister’s future. Brady had delayed the call to ensure the Platinum Jubilee was not overshadowed by the development.

But with that single, short conversation, a dam had broken which led to one of the most electrifying dramas in modern British politics.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson failed to recover from a devastating vote of no confidence and announced his resignation earlier this month

Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, called the Prime Minister to tell him the threshold for a vote of no confidence has been met

At his last session of Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, Johnson bowed out by saying ‘Hasta la vista, baby!’

It was the first cut in the downfall of the Prime Minister who gave his last swashbuckling performance in the Commons this week. Today, the Mail tells the full inside story of Boris’s toppling for the first time.

It is a tale of jaw-dropping treachery and duplicitous ministers, but also of mishaps and incompetence at the highest levels in government; a snapshot of history in which the most successful Tory leader since Margaret Thatcher was brutally defenestrated by his own colleagues.

Unable to do anything but contemplate his fate during the Jubilee Pageant, Boris snapped into action as soon as he was in the car on the way back to No. 10.

He began calling his inner circle. They included Guto Harri, communications chief; Steve Barclay, chief of staff; David Canzini, deputy chief of staff; Nigel Adams, Cabinet Office minister; and Adams’s flatmate Chris Heaton-Harris, Chief Whip, who would be in charge of marshalling support for Boris during the confidence vote.

The mood was bleak as they gathered that Sunday evening in the Thatcher Room under a portrait of Britain’s first woman Prime Minister — she who was also forced from office by disloyal MPs.

Boris was angry. Days earlier he had been assured by Adams in a phone call that there was no prospect of an imminent confidence vote.

Yet when the call took place, Adams had been on holiday with his family in Croatia. He was out of touch and had no idea that the letters to the 1922 Committee demanding a vote had been piling high. He had relied on information provided by his flatmate, Chief Whip Heaton-Harris, who had only been appointed in February and was clearly too inexperienced to know what was going on.

By the time the inner circle met in the Thatcher Room, however, there was no point in recriminations. What had to be decided was when the vote should take place.

There was a heated debate. Some wanted to get it over and done with; others urged restraint, arguing that the PM would need time to mobilise support in the Commons.

Boris was persuaded to move quickly, and the vote was scheduled for the next day. In making that decision, he surrendered his most powerful weapon — patronage. As PM, he could offer ministerial jobs, trade envoy posts, gongs.

‘The vote should have been held at the end of the week. We were on the back foot from the beginning,’ said one ally. ‘But he was swayed by the ones who were arguing: “Show them who’s the boss. Do it straight away.” It was a serious error of judgment.’

Boris had been buoyed by the assurances of Adams and Heaton-Harris that he would comfortably survive the confidence vote. He was told there would be fewer than 100 rebel MPs.

They all acknowledged it would be catastrophic should 150 MPs vote against him — but not one person in the Thatcher Room meeting thought there was any prospect of that happening.

Boris invited a number of supportive MPs into his Commons study as the secret ballot took place. The mood was tense, but none of them saw what was coming. At 9pm Brady announced the Prime Minister had 211 votes in his favour, and 148 against — more than 40 per cent of the Parliamentary Party.

Boris and his team were shell‑shocked. Theresa May had fared far better in a confidence vote in 2018, yet six months later she was gone.

Boris came out fighting after surviving a confidence vote, describing the vote at Prime Minister’s questions that week as ‘decisive’

Despite the brave talk, everyone in Team Boris knew the result was a disaster. Yet again there was a critical failure in the Whips’ operation. Once more the cry went out: ‘How did they get it so wrong?’

‘I’ll tell you how,’ said a veteran of the Margaret Thatcher leadership contest against Michael Heseltine in 1990. ‘They were complacent. In 1990 Mrs T was let down by complacency. History repeated itself.’

Boris, nevertheless, came out fighting — as had been agreed with his team — describing the vote at Prime Minister’s questions that week as ‘decisive’; and since he had a majority, it was the end of the matter.

But the reaction from the MPs behind him was muted, a sign his authority was starting to crumble.

Two days later Katharine Birbalsingh, the chairman of the government’s Social Mobility Commission, gave a little-noticed interview to The Guardian. She said that Boris’s personal life made her ‘raise an eyebrow’ and suggested ‘he was not a good role model’ for young people.

Birbalsingh, a school headteacher, is a close ally of Michael Gove, who was then Levelling Up Secretary. Her intervention was noted in No. 10 with alarm. Was a plot under way?

‘Boris never trusted Gove after he withdrew support from him in the 2016 leadership contest,’ said the ally. ‘Was Gove up to his usual tricks and getting one of his allies to start testing the water? Scheming for Michael is like crack cocaine for an addict.’

There were already other reasons for suspicion.

Since he became Chancellor in February 2020, Rishi Sunak had always seen Boris for private catch-up sessions on alternate Sunday evenings. The two of them met, with no officials present, for an hour or so in Boris’s study or Sunak’s Downing Street flat. But just before the publication of civil servant Sue Gray’s report into ‘Partygate’ on May 25 this year, the meetings had ceased.

A source close to Boris said: ‘Rishi was avoiding the boss. Then Birbalsingh, an ally of Gove who we know is close to Rishi, unexpectedly attacked Boris. We were now on high alert.’

Katharine Birbalsingh (pictured), the chairman of the government’s Social Mobility Commission, said that Boris’s personal life made her ‘raise an eyebrow’ and suggested ‘he was not a good role model’ for young people in an interview with The Guardian

Even more troubling, on the same day as Birbalsingh’s interview, Lord Frost, who had resigned last year as Boris’s Brexit Secretary lamenting the drift away from true Conservatism, launched his own attack, warning Boris to raise his game.

‘Like the cockpit of a crashing airliner, the dashboard lights are all flashing red,’ he said. ‘The Government has to decide which problems must be dealt with now and which can be left until later.’

And then, as the rumbles on the backbenches increased in volume, Lord Geidt quit on June 15 as Boris’s ministerial ethics adviser.

There was bafflement in No. 10. Only days earlier, he had asked the PM if he could to stay on for a further six months.

But Boris saw a chance to put his mounting troubles behind him the following week, with a globe-trotting tour of the Commonwealth heads of government conference in Rwanda, a G7 summit in Germany and a Nato summit.

Those eight days out of the country would be the longest in the era of modern jet travel that any British PM had been away from home while Parliament was sitting.

A number of his team begged him not to go away for so long. ‘There are no votes in a Commonwealth conference,’ one of them told me. ‘But his mind was made up. He thought the trip would shore up his position by making sure he was seen parading on the world stage as an international statesman.’

What really worried Team Boris was that in that first week he was away there were two by-elections, one in Wakefield the other in Honiton and Tiverton.

They warned him not to be too far from home because the results could be bad. In fact, the results were disastrous. The Tories lost both seats, with Tiverton going to the Lib Dems with a swing of more than 30 per cent — and things were made worse by the resignation of Tory Chairman Oliver Dowden.

News of his resignation came through when the PM was in Rwanda. Boris knew immediately that Dowden had planned it in advance. Dowden was one of the first to pledge support for Sunak in the leadership contest. ‘Sunak’s people are circling the wagons,’ one of his officials remarked in Rwanda later.

Oliver Dowden resigned as Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party following the Conservative defeats at the Tiverton and Honiton by-election and Wakefield by-election

Boris was abroad for another six days and incapable of exerting any authority over his restive MPs.

When he returned to Downing Street, there was a backlog of work because he had been away so long. A number of appointments with backbench MPs, which were in the diary, were cancelled, which did not help. ‘It was another short-sighted decision. He should have been seeing more MPs not fewer, especially after those two bloody by-elections,’ said a supporter.

Then came more evidence Sunak was planning to strike. The Chancellor kept cancelling appointments to talk to Boris about the contents of a joint speech on the economy that was supposed to reset the economic agenda.

He also stopped attending the daily strategy meetings in No. 10 with Boris and key officials which usually began at 8.30am. ‘By the time Sunak resigned he had been absent from these meetings for the best part of three weeks,’ said another trusted ally. ‘In hindsight, it was obvious what was going on. Boris used to joke: “Where’s Rishi? Has anyone seen Rishi?” Someone else would say: “Plotting”.’

The joke rapidly wore thin.

For a few days, however, the PM was basking in the glow of approving headlines resulting from his week of international statesmanship. His gamble, it seemed, had paid off.

While his mood was so upbeat, some of his officials tried to persuade him to meet Lord Frost to try to woo him back into the fold after his criticism. To no avail. ‘The boss never keeps in touch with anyone when they’ve gone. The shutters come down. It’s short-sighted.’ So it was to prove.

Meanwhile, the following week, in the Carlton Club, the bastion of the Tory establishment, Deputy Chief Whip Chris Pincher made drunken lunges at two young men. His lewd behaviour made the front page of the Daily Mail and Pincher resigned.

Heaton-Harris, the Chief Whip, insisted there was no need to remove the Tory whip from him. Another grievous error. ‘Boris should have thrown Pincher under a bus. Instead, he appeared to be trying to protect him. It was a doomed strategy,’ another associate told me.

Four days later the whip was withdrawn from Pincher amid growing concern on the Tory backbenches.

Downing Street was contacted by Lord McDonald of Salford who told officials at No. 10 that the PM had been briefed in person about Chris Pincher’s (pictured) past behaviour, and that the version of events being spun — that Boris had not known about it — was untrue

Arguably the biggest mistake came on the weekend of Saturday July 2. Downing Street was contacted by Lord McDonald of Salford, a former Foreign Office mandarin, who told officials at No. 10 that the PM had been briefed in person about Pincher’s past behaviour, and that the version of events being spun — that Boris had not known about it — was untrue.

Here was a chance to make amends, to point out that there had been a mistake, that the PM had known. Astonishingly, No. 10 did not do so.

The result was that, on Tuesday July 5, McDonald released a devastating letter to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone, saying Downing Street was ‘still not telling the truth’ about Pincher. He followed it up with an interview on BBC TV. Lord Frost then called for his old political master to go, saying: ‘Boris should leave before he takes the Conservative Party down with him.’

The intervention sent shockwaves through the Party.

With No. 10 now clearly rattled, Boris toured the Commons tea rooms. But he became embroiled in a row with Mark Fletcher, the Tory MP for Bolsover, who had witnessed Pincher at the Carlton Club the previous week.

Boris berated Fletcher, saying there were seven Tory MPs in the Carlton Club who had witnessed Pincher’s drunken antics. ‘Why didn’t they step in to stop Pincher?’ asked the PM.

A fair point — but Fletcher resigned later that day as a parliamentary aide, describing the PM’s response as ‘crass and insensitive’. Some 50 Tory MPs witnessed the clash in the tea room.

Soon afterwards, Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, came in to see Boris. He told him he was going to resign later that day. The meeting was amicable and later Boris wondered out loud to his officials how long would it be before the Chancellor quit too. He soon found out.

Javid’s resignation broke in the 6pm TV news. Sunak resigned nine minutes later. He telephoned Boris only minutes before the announcement.

In No. 10 there was frantic activity as Boris tried to plug the gaps caused now by an increasing number of ministerial resignations.

By 9am the next day there were a dozen. Michael Gove, the Levelling Up Secretary who helped Boris prepare for Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), warned him he had lost the confidence of the Cabinet and should resign by 9pm or he, too, would quit.

In a typically defiant performance at the dispatch box at PMQs Boris gave no indication he was thinking of quitting.

Sajid made a self-aggrandising — and somewhat underwhelming — personal statement in the Commons, the resignations continued and later that day a delegation of ministers went into No. 10 to tell Boris to resign.

The Home Secretary Priti Patel also went in but told Boris that, though she thought he was finished, she would not resign. ‘It was a moving conversation. She loves Boris and he loves her,’ said a supporter.

It was not all one-way traffic. Nadine Dorries, the Culture Secretary, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Minister for Brexit Opportunities, went in to tell him to stay and fight. Dorries said: ‘I was stunned that there were people who thought of removing the Prime Minister with the biggest majority since 1987. It was undemocratic. It was a coup.’

The mood inside No. 10 on Wednesday evening was becoming increasingly tense; Andrew Griffiths, the MP for Arundel and South Downs and head of the policy unit, threatened to lock the door in Downing Street to stop those coming in to resign.

All the while Boris was trying to build a new Cabinet. Promotions were being dangled to try to stop the onslaught.

At 8.58pm, two minutes before that 9pm deadline imposed by Michael Gove, he telephoned the Levelling Up Secretary. ‘Are you resigning Prime Minister?’ asked Gove. To which Boris replied: ‘No, you are. You’re fired.’

By the time he went up to his flat at 10.30pm Boris realised the game was up, but was going to sleep on his decision to quit. He was up at 5.30am the following morning and by 6.30am his resignation statement was written. His wife Carrie was a crucial influence in his decision to go.

At 9.09am the BBC reported that Boris had bowed to the inevitable and was quitting.

Javid, whose resignation started the deluge, has since said: ‘I hope one day I can sit down with Boris and have a drink and I’ll look forward to it.’

But a drink with his former Health Secretary is now the last thing on Boris’s mind.

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