As Rishi Sunak addressed much of his parliamentary party during an away day in Berkshire this week, he warned that voters would punish the Tories at the ballot box if they “inflicted more psychodrama” on the country.
But for many Conservative MPs the comments were more likely to be construed as wishful thinking, rather than a threat to fall into line.
While the Prime Minister was attempting to rally his troops, choosing to host the team-building exercise in the same Windsor hotel where he shook on a Brexit deal with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen this week, one of his predecessors was issuing a clarion call of his own.
Just as the Tory party’s Australian polling guru Isaac Levido was spelling out to MPs in Windsor how the Conservatives had a route to electoral victory by showing they could “work as a team”, 25 miles east Boris Johnson was delivering a speech in Westminster which rejected his leader’s new Brexit deal for Northern Ireland, demanded fresh tax cuts and criticised the party’s position in the polls.
Tory MPs now fear that Mr Sunak’s attempts to govern through statecraft and quiet diplomacy, as shown in his dealings with Brussels, could be torpedoed by the noise surrounding Mr Johnson, even if his latest tilt at a prime ministerial comeback fails due to Partygate.
“The man is a narcissist with no loyalty to the party that made him,” spat one former minister. “He is praying for a trouncing in the local elections so that he can bully his way in again.”
Some have viewed Mr Johnson’s decision to speak out on the Brexit Northern Ireland deal as ominous for the current Prime Minister, whose team are now anxiously waiting for the crucial verdicts on the “Windsor Framework” from the European Research Group (ERG) of Tory Brexiteers and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
“It could spell trouble for Rishi if things don’t start looking up,” a veteran Conservative MP said.
But Mr Johnson faces his own problems as a grilling from MPs over Partygate looms in just over a fortnight’s time.
Downing Street has meanwhile been cautiously optimistic that it has managed to secure a replacement for Mr Johnson’s fundamentally flawed Protocol arrangement that all sides could live with.
The lack of a flat rejection from either the DUP or the ERG in the 48 hours that followed the publication of the framework agreement was viewed as a victory.
Mr Sunak was praised for securing a deal that appeared to extract some major concessions from Brussels on the reach of EU laws and regulations in Northern Ireland, particularly through the implementation of the so-called “Stormont Brake”.
To Whitehall observers and allies of the Prime Minister it was evidence that the former City banker’s smooth style of technocratic statesmanship was able to pay greater dividends than Mr Johnson’s gunboat diplomacy.
It is an approach Mr Sunak intends to take forward in a bid to secure further compromises with striking nurses and with President Emmanuel Macron on the issue of Channel migrant crossings.
As revealed by i last week, the Prime Minister personally intervened in the dispute with the Royal College of Nurses, viewing their demands as a special case and one staunchly supported by the public.
Meanwhile, he is expected to rekindle “le bromance” with his French counterpart. The pair share many similarities, not least their past as bankers and their penchant for expensive suits and shoes with elevated heels.
Mr Sunak’s Parliamentary supporters believe that his collegiate approach to the country’s most pressing issues could even turn the party’s fortunes when it matters.
One ally told i: “I certainly think if things carry on like this, things could be looking up for the election. It’s the start of a drumbeat of action.”
The MP added that despite Mr Johnson’s sabre-rattling over Brexit, “Rishi’s deal has genuinely clipped his wings”.
Earlier this week Johnsonites were arguing that their champion remained a potent political force. They said that rather than attempting to derail the new Brexit deal, the former PM was choosing to criticise the framework as part of a “Spartan attack to claim the moral high ground”, and thereby build a support base from the staunch Brexiteer cohort within the Tory party.
One Johnson ally said such a move was the start of a call to arms for his backers to rally, with the news of Sue Gray’s attempt to join Labour as Sir Keir Starmer’s chief of staff seen as a potential launch pad for Mr Johnson to try and reclaim the leadership.
“He’s raising his profile but not striking yet,” one veteran Tory said. “This Sue Gray story has given him a serious boost. I think over the next few weeks he will be seen as a martyr who was fixed up by the Left.”
The backbencher added that any move from Mr Johnson would “come after the local elections then climax around party conference time” in October.
His backers see Mr Sunak’s logical and technocratic approach to policy problems, as a weakness rather than a strength, despite the apparent success it offers.
“The consensus is Rishi is managerial, whereas Boris has vision,” one ally from the pro-Johnson wing of the party told i.
Since then, though, the Partygate allegations that helped to bring Mr Johnson down have returned to centre stage. On Friday the committee of MPs investigating whether the former PM misled Parliament over the affair published a series of WhatsApp messages, suggesting that even his own officials believed there was more than one “great gaping hole” in the account he gave.
Meanwhile, senior Labour figures believe their decision to back Mr Sunak’s Windsor Framework in any Commons vote has “boxed Johnson in” over Brexit.
But they are dismissive of the idea that getting the deal through Parliament means the PM has turned a corner.
“Ensuring people can buy British sausages once more in Northern Ireland is not success, it’s the bare minimum expected. And it won’t make the average voter feel any better off, or get striking workers back to work,” a Shadow Cabinet member said.
No 10 will be eager to avoid having to push through the new Brexit deal on the back of Labour votes, as it will leave Mr Sunak desperately exposed to attack from the right of his party. But he could be spared a renewed assault due to a general Brexit fatigue that has set into the party.
According to one senior backbencher, several in the ERG “do not have the appetite” for another scrap over the issue. “And truthfully, they know a compromise has to be reached and the deal has been drafted by those who were in the ERG hierarchy,” the MP added.
But Mr Johnson remains a problem for the PM. Supporters of Mr Sunak have criticised the former PM’s interventions because fear they will hand the Downing Street keys to Labour.
“Boris had his chance and he blew it,” a senior Tory said. “A period of silence now would be most desirable.”
But they do not view the renewed challenge Mr Johnson faces over Partygate as any kind of victory, because it is “dominating headlines” in a way that threatens the whole Tory brand.
As one supporter of the PM put it: “Rishi would rather this would just go away.”