Boris Johnson has arrived at his first Tory conference as prime minister, hoping to reaffirm his message that Brexit will happen next month, but mired in scandal.
The PM arrived in Manchester on Saturday evening and will kick off the annual gathering of party faithful today, with his main-draw speech on Wednesday.
Despite parliament still sitting in London, Tory whips have urged MPs to attend and keep things business-as-usual for the other ministers’ speeches, and for the activists and exhibitors who have travelled from across the country.
Mr Johnson will be keen to focus attention on his key pledges on crime, schools and the NHS in the build up to an anticipated general election.
But he is facing controversy over being referred to the police watchdog for his links to a US businesswoman.
It follows claims that Jennifer Arcuri received public money and privileged access to foreign trade missions while Mr Johnson was mayor.
Mr Johnson said he and Ms Arcuri “did a huge amount of work” together when he was London mayor.
He has denied any wrongdoing but repeatedly refused to answer further on the woman who called him “one of her best friends”.
Today, the Sunday Times has published further allegations about the nature of his relationship Ms Arcuri. Downing Street has refused to comment on the report.
Cabinet ally Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers has dismissed the complaint to the police watchdog, telling Sky News it was “driven by political motivations”.
But the Independent Office for Police Conduct is now considering whether there are grounds to investigate the prime minister for the criminal offence of misconduct in public office.
A senior SNP MP said the opposition parties could stage a vote of no-confidence in the government as early as next week in a bid to replace Mr Johnson with a caretaker leader who would secure an extension to the Brexit deadline.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is expected to convene another meeting of opposition leaders in Westminster on Monday to plot their next moves aimed at preventing a no-deal Brexit on 31 October.
Speaking to reporters at a rally in Chingford, Essex on Sunday, Mr Corbyn said he stood ready to lead an interim government if Mr Johnson was forced from No 10.
Mr Johnson has also been accused by former chancellor Philip Hammond of being backed by bankers who have bet on a no-deal Brexit that will send the pound “tumbling”.
Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell has referred the matter to the head of the civil service – Sir Mark Sedwill – and asked him to investigate.
Many MPs are also furious at Mr Johnson for describing as “humbug” a call from a Labour backbencher for him to moderate his language amid death threats some politicians are receiving, and to not refer to the “surrender act”.
Kim Leadbeater, sister of the MP Jo Cox who was murdered by a far-right terrorist, said earlier this week it was “wrong” of the prime minister to say the “best way” to honour her memory was to “get Brexit done”.
Some MPs are also planning how to head off any bid by the prime minister not to comply with their attempt to block no-deal by forcing him to ask the EU to delay Brexit to avoid the scenario.
Up to five ways have been suggested for how Downing Street – aided by Mr Johnson’s special adviser Dominic Cummings and his legislation expert Nikki da Costa – could get around the law.
- To send a letter to the EU formally requesting the delay but with an additional note that says Mr Johnson does not personally want them to grant it
- Get MPs to vote for a deal, but not then table the necessary legislation for that deal to actually pass into law
- Try to use a technique known as an “Order in Council” of the Queen’s Privy Council to suspend the law forcing him to seek a delay
- Use a part of the Civil Contingencies Act which lets the government suspend some laws due to emergencies
- Argue the act is unlawful under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights
Senior Tory figures would not be drawn on how exactly Mr Johnson intends not to ask for a delay without breaking the law.
But Mr Cummings told Sky News “there are obviously loopholes” in the act.
SNP MP Drew Hendry told Sky News “the time is fast coming” for opposition MPs to try to oust Mr Johnson in a no-confidence vote.
“We want to get it done as quickly as possible – if it is possible to do something that quickly [on Monday or Tuesday] then so be it,” he said on Saturday.