Boris Johnson’s supporters believe his chances of returning as prime minister have been dealt a blow after an expected rebellion over Rishi Sunak’s Brexit deal failed to materialise.
In a significant move, influential former Brexit negotiator David Frost begrudgingly backed the ‘Windsor framework’ and said it was a “bitter pill” to swallow.
The prime minister has made clear he is not prepared to make changes to the arrangement as he stares down critics in the DUP and on his own backbenches.
But a number of senior Brexiteers have fallen in behind the new arrangements while the DUP and members of the eurosceptic European Research Group of MPs could take weeks to deliver a final verdict.
Mr Johnson, meanwhile, is yet to break his silence on whether he supports the agreement more than 46 hours since the historic deal was struck at Windsor. He took part in a Commons debate on energy security on Tuesday, but did not mention Brexit.
Since the deal was done, Jacob Rees-Mogg, a longtime supporter of Mr Johnson, the former Commons leader, has urged fellow Tory MPs to “calm down and live with the leader we’ve got”.
He told ITV: “If we’re a grown-up party, we cannot change leader again between now and an election.”
Some allies of Mr Johnson still believe he could return if May’s local elections are a disaster for the party.
Even staunch Johnsonites admit, however, that he will have to get through a parliamentary investigation into Partygate first.
A senior Tory source told The Guardian they had been approached by those still close to the former prime minister for “informal conversations about the future” but those had never materialised.
”The fight’s gone out of most people,” they said. “There’s not a lot of coordination any more.”
Allies of Mr Johnson told The Times he would not oppose Mr Sunak’s deal because it would “look silly” rebelling with only 10 to 15 people.
As part of the deal, Mr Sunak ditched Mr Johnson’s flagship bill which would have unilaterally ripped up parts of the current Brexit arrangements with the EU.
Despite this, the ex-PM has thus far made no critical comments about the Windsor framework, which was unveiled on Monday.
Robert Hayward, a Conservative peer, said the deal was the “first significant event” since taking office that had “put the Johnson supporters heavily on the back foot”.
“It hasn’t pushed Johnson away but it has diminished his potential influence,” he added.
One senior Tory MP said Mr Johnson should “put up or shut up” – urging Mr Sunak and the Tory whips’ office to suspend him if he opposes the Windsor deal. “Support the deal or lose the whip,” the Sunak supporter told The Independent.
Another senior Tory MP told The Independent: “Boris needs to stop playing games and realise this is all over. It’s time to be magnanimous and embrace the fact it’s a really good Brexit deal.”
A spokesman for Mr Johnson said he was “supporting the government”.