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Conservative MPs are defending their leader. But what if Johnson is fined again and again? | Katy Balls

OWhen news broke that Boris Johnson – along with his Chancellor – had been fined for breaking Covid rules during the lockdown, the Prime Minister’s defenders quickly organised. Tory MPs lined up to publicly offer their support – suggesting the war in Ukraine had shown there were bigger issues to focus on. That group even included unlikely cheerleaders such as Roger Gale, a Tory backbench MP who had previously called on Johnson to look into the matter.

But while more than 70 MPs at last count have publicly backed Johnson, the concern of No 10 and the Whips Office is about the roughly 200 Tory MPs who are currently silent. While some are trying to make the most of the Easter holidays – “colleagues want a break” – the majority still can’t make up their minds. “Most MPs are waiting to see if there are more fines and what the public reaction is,” said a government official. “No one thinks there will be 54 letters in the next few days.”

Even Johnson’s internal critics admit he’s in a much better position to fight for his survival than he was two months ago. While the official line from Conservative campaign headquarters to MPs is that the war in Ukraine means now is not even the time to consider a Tory leadership race, it is only a many factors in the Members’ calculations.

The new No 10 team – which is more MP-focused – has reached out to the party in recent weeks and has been successful in boosting morale. Meanwhile, the cost of living crisis, rather than the parties, has been the issue dominating MPs’ mailboxes in recent weeks. But, perhaps most importantly, the fall of Rishi Sunak means there is no obvious successor to Johnson and a leadership race looks less attractive.

Even before he was fined, the Chancellor was being struck off by MPs as a leadership candidate in any immediate competition. Stories about his use of a green card while at No 11 and his wife’s non-dom tax status served as red flags in the party – suggesting he is politically naïve. “It looks like a gamble now,” says a Tory MP.

This is important, because until now he was seen as the favorite in any Conservative leadership race. “The most likely candidate now is Liz Truss. That’s a problem,” says a member of the Class of 2019 who wasn’t caught up in an episode of Truss-mania.

There were some nerves in government on Tuesday over the time Sunak took to apologize and confirm he would stay in place rather than resign. While the move helped stabilize Johnson’s position in the short term, few MPs believe the situation is sustainable. “The fact that Rishi has also been fined makes the situation worse,” says a senior Tory official. “You can’t get the two top government officials to have been found guilty of breaking the rules.”

But just because no one really wants a leadership crisis doesn’t mean it will be avoided. “Very few deputies want one at the moment but the party is in a miserable situation,” laments a member of the government. A focus group made up of One Nation Tories questioned whether they would ever be able to reclaim the Tory brand – and the consensus was negative.

Even Johnson’s most passionate defenses are signaling trouble ahead. The Prime Minister’s supporters were quick to speak dismissively of the latest round of fines – questioning the seriousness of the event they relate to, which involved a birthday cake during working hours.

But here’s the thing: If Sunak is fined for showing up to a meeting early and briefly attending an event involving cake, what does that mean for other events Johnson may have attended? This includes the infamous ‘bring your own booze’ party in the Downing Street garden. There’s also the eventual release of Sue Gray’s report, which is expected to be highly critical of Johnson.

“If he gets more fines,” says a former political colleague of Johnson, “he will have to explain that he repeatedly failed to understand the rules.”

Already, Tory MPs are growing increasingly concerned that despite the Prime Minister’s change in circumstances, the situation has not lost its political power. A lawmaker said he received only a handful of emails from constituents regarding Sunak’s wife’s non-dom status, but since the announcement of the fines there have already been hundreds of messages.

Combine that with a poor result in the upcoming local elections, and we can expect the recriminations to begin. For Conservative MPs, the saga is far from over.