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The Tory Party’s ‘men in grey suits’ practised their aim — and their shots rang out across the sky. As the clay pigeons flew overhead and the marksmen pulled their triggers, the setting could hardly have been more glorious at society gunmaker Holland & Holland’s 60-acre ‘Shooting Grounds’ in Hertfordshire.
Yet the MPs wielding the shotguns two weeks ago had another quarry in mind: the Prime Minister himself.
Ostensibly, the event had been organised by the ‘All Party Parliamentary Group on Shooting and Conservation’. There are just five members of this group — only one of whom was actually there, chairman Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, a longstanding critic of the Prime Minister.
Also present, unusually, were five key members of the Tory Party’s 13-strong 1922 Committee executive — and they had much to discuss.
The plotters intended to trigger a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister at the 1922 Committee – chaired by Sir Graham Brady
They had hoped that their genial assembly might remain off the media’s radar, and had been sure to arrange it far from the prying eyes of the Commons and key Boris loyalists.
But the plotters were unlucky for two reasons. First: I have spoken to someone with knowledge of the event, who was only too keen to tell me what took place.
And second: Boris, too, got wind of this very modern gunpowder plot — and foiled it just in time.
One well-placed source tells me: ‘The MPs made their own way to the clay pigeon shoot: much more discreet. Everyone left separately at the end of the afternoon as well, and went back to their constituencies.
‘By claiming they were there to talk about shooting and conservation, they gave themselves a sliver of respectability. But the only shooting they actually discussed was the Prime Minister’s.’
They had met to discuss one question: should the Conservative Party’s rules be changed to allow an incumbent leader to be challenged twice in a single year?
The plotters knew that the PM would likely survive any immediate no-confidence vote. After all, he won a thumping election victory not so long ago and the country still credits him for the successful vaccine roll-out.
Another MP brandishing a gun — though not, I’m afraid, very well — was Nusrat Ghani, who claimed at the weekend that she was sacked from the Government two years ago amid concerns about her ‘Muslimness’
But later this year, if his enemies felt they could and should topple him — what then?
‘The talk at the shoot was all about a second leadership vote against Boris within a year,’ says my source. ‘There’s a lot of hostility to the PM on the 1922 executive. Frankly, it’s sickening to behold . . .
‘There was discussion about who would be first to stand up to call for Boris’s resignation if Sue Gray’s report is bad.’
The source adds archly: ‘There is a terrible irony about Tory MPs plotting the demise of their leader at a famous shooting range just up the road from his constituency [in Uxbridge].’
The key figure on the day was Sir Geoffrey himself, who made his views clear in December when he said that unless the PM’s performance improved, ‘some members of the party will be thinking we have got to have a change’.
Also present was 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady. He is the one to whom Tory MPs write confidentially if they want to trigger a vote of no-confidence. (When the threshold of 54 letters — or 15 per cent of Tory MPs — is passed, the vote moves to the parliamentary party.)
Another MP brandishing a gun — though not, I’m afraid, very well — was Nusrat Ghani, who claimed at the weekend that she was sacked from the Government two years ago amid concerns about her ‘Muslimness’. She is known to have already sent a letter of no confidence to Sir Graham. Ms Ghani, vice chairman of the 1922 executive, alleged that a Government whip — who denies the claims — cited her faith as a reason for removing her from a ministerial role in February 2020.
The Prime Minister subsequently met her and urged her to lodge a formal complaint — but she declined to do so, instead later telling her story to the Press at a time of particular crisis for Boris.
My source claims: ‘While Nus had a lot to say, she never mentioned being sacked from the Government because of her Muslim faith.’
The plotters thought that the party’s rules would be changed that night — but Team Boris, buoyed by a robust performance at Prime Minister’s Questions that day, had already sprung into action
Others on the excursion, which usually costs £120 per person but had been provided free to the gun-toting MPs, were Gary Sambrook, the MP for Birmingham Northfield, who has also sent a letter of no confidence and has been named as one of the ‘pork pie plotters’: the largely inexperienced MPs who launched an abortive coup last week.
It was, in all, a significant gathering — and a sign of the political times.
In the past, 1922 Committee officers have typically been ruddy-cheeked knights of the shires: Sir Edward du Cann, a former Conservative Party chairman, ran the Committee between 1972 and 1984.
In 1975, it was du Cann who held a meeting of the so-called ‘Milk Street Mafia’ in his office at that address in London, where it was resolved to tell Edward Heath, who had lost three out of four general elections, to stage a leadership contest. Mrs Thatcher won and the rest is history.
But with some exceptions, these guns were often young and inexperienced: Mr Sambrook has been an MP only since 2019. And that is just one reason why Boris felt emboldened to come out so hard against them when he learned of their Machiavellian scheming.
As the plotters drove away, their bellies stuffed in some cases with hot sausage rolls, they perhaps congratulated themselves on reaching a cosy consensus that the 1922 would soon amend its rules. How quickly it all unravelled!
Fast forward to Wednesday evening this week, when the full 1922 executive met in Commons Committee Room 14.
The plotters thought that the party’s rules would be changed that night — but Team Boris, buoyed by a robust performance at Prime Minister’s Questions that day, had already sprung into action.
Northern Ireland minister Conor Burns, Cabinet Office minister Nigel Adams and Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries had stepped forward to shore up support for the PM among Tory MPs and persuade them firmly to oppose the changes.
To make matters easier, as the full ugly details of the Holland & Holland plot became clear, many Tory MPs were aghast.
One source tells me: ‘There was a hell of row behind those closed doors. The optics of Boris’s fate being discussed by MPs while they were messing around with shotguns was just awful. So much for modernity and being in touch with ordinary voters!’
Other long-time Boris supporters on the 1922 executive such as Sir Bernard Jenkin — who did not attend the shoot — were implacably opposed to changing rules that have stood for almost half a century.
Gary Sambrook, the MP for Birmingham Northfield, who has also sent a letter of no confidence and has been named as one of the ‘pork pie plotters’
Only Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown continued to argue defiantly for the new regulations.
‘He was on his own,’ reveals my source. ‘The other MPs on the shoot hardly said anything. They knew it was game over and no vote was required.’
Oh, and the clay pigeon scores on the day?
Richard Holden, who won North West Durham for the Tories for the first time since the seat was formed in 1950, took the honours in the shooting contest. Sir Graham was next, followed by Sir Geoffrey. Nusrat Ghani was close to last.
While Boris has now seen off the immediate threat, he must be wondering who will be the next to take aim at him — and hoping that, like this month’s gunpowder plotters, they miss.