The UK defence minister, James Heappey, has urged his Conservative colleagues to wait for Sue Gray’s report before submitting letters of no confidence in the prime minister, calling for “cool heads” as Boris Johnson battles for his political future.
Johnson will face the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday for the first time since No 10 was forced to apologise to the Queen over two parties held the night before Prince Philip’s funeral.
Heappey conceded that Johnson had appeared under pressure in a Sky News interview on Tuesday. “He looked like the man who has the weight of the world on his shoulders,” he said.
The minister acknowledged the intensity of public anger, saying he had had “hundreds of emails” from constituents, and expected the prime minister to have to make further apologies.
“People are absolutely furious at what they have heard and seen,” he said.
But Heappey called on Tory MPs to await the findings of Gray, who is the heading the investigation into alleged rule-breaking at Downing Street, before moving against Johnson.
“I wish that they would wait. This feels like a time for cool heads in parliament,” he said. “I think we should all be wanting to wait to see what evidence she has gathered from across everybody she has spoken to and what judgments she comes to and then we can make a decision about what happens next.”
Conservative MPs can trigger a leadership contest if 15% of them – 54 on current numbers in parliament – write a confidential letter of no confidence in the prime minister, Boris Johnson, to Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, the parliamentary group of the Conservative party in the House of Commons. Only he knows the exact number of letters that have been submitted.
Once the threshold is reached, there is a vote of confidence in the party leader, involving all Conservative MPs. If the prime minister wins a majority – in this case 180 votes – he would remain in office, and no new no-confidence vote could be triggered for at least 12 months. If he loses, or choses to resign, then a leadership contest takes place.
In a leadership election, Conservative MPs choose one candidate from those standing in a secret ballot. In the first round, any candidate who wins the support of fewer than 5% of MPs is eliminated. In the second round anybody winning less than 10% of the vote is eliminated. In subsequent rounds the bottom placed contender drops out until there are only two contenders left.
The choice of those two is then put to a postal ballot of Conservative party members around the country. The winner of that vote becomes the prime minister, with no obligation to call a general election to secure their position.
He said he trusted the prime minister’s explanation, given last week, that he had believed the “bring your own booze” gathering he attended on 20 May 2020 was a “work event”.
“I can see how the prime minister wouldn’t have known what it was he was going down the stairs to join. His diary is extraordinarily congested, put together in five-minute blocks, and he spends his day bouncing from high-level meeting to high-level meeting,” he said.
If 54 letters are received from Conservative MPs by the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, Graham Brady, he would call a vote of no confidence in the prime minister. If Johnson lost, his premiership would be over.
“Red wall” Conservative MPs met on Tuesday to decide whether to put in their letters. They gathered in the office of the Rutland and Melton MP, Alicia Kearns, giving rise to the nickname the “pork pie plot”, with 10 or so believed to have sent in letters, and more waiting until Wednesday.
Heappey appeared to agree that Johnson would have to resign if the facts laid out in the Gray report suggest he lied to parliament.
“All of us are very clear on what signing the ministerial code means and you heard my colleagues the lord chancellor and the chancellor both reflect on that yesterday,” he said.
Johnson is expected to update parliament on plans for lifting Covid restrictions, as No 10 battles to shift the focus away from more than a dozen lockdown-busting parties on to the government’s political agenda.