Johnson fights on. But for how long?
For former Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell, it was the death of Rasputin. “He’s been poisoned, stabbed, he’s been shot, his body’s been dumped in a freezing river and still he lives.”
For Matthew Parris it was George Orwell’s report of the shooting of an elephant. “It’s dreadful to see the great beast lying there, powerless to move and yet powerless to die.”
Ask almost anyone in Westminster and they will tell you the same thing. It is over. It is just a matter of dignity and time. Hours, days, weeks, maybe months.
But how many times have we been told that about Boris Johnson? As Politico’s London Playbook put it this morning, of all the “end of days” days we’ve had under Johnson, yesterday felt like the most end of days day.
Newsnight’s Political Editor Nick Watt said last night for any conventional PM it would all be over. But this isn’t a conventional PM. The rules have never applied to Johnson in his life.
The PM’s allies are divided on his chances. Some think he won’t survive the day. Others feel that he can hold out for months. But no-one still thinks his recently stated ambition to lead the party into 2030 is plausible.
If the writing is on the wall, Johnson has not read it. He is determined to dig in. Speaking at PMQs this afternoon he insisted: “The job of a prime minister in difficult circumstances when he has been handed a colossal mandate is to keep going and that’s what I’m going to do.” He, rather implausibly, told aides last night it was business as usual. He has even told colleagues he can now pursue the agenda they want with tax cut-blocking Rishi Sunak out of the way. There will be a re-run of the suggestions it is self-indulgent, even unpatriotic, to change leader at a time of war and a cost-of-living crisis. The new Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi is one man getting on with the job, telling the Today programme the Government was focused on addressing cost-of-living, the NHS backlog and national security. Even as he was speaking however, two further resignations were announced.
In reality, Number 10’s focus in not on running the country. It is entirely on the PM’s survival. Indeed it has been for some time, with little lasting impact. He has had increasing difficulty telling his MPs what to do. His authority continues to drain away and many think there is now nothing he can do to regain it. Changing the personnel (again) won’t help. Changing policy won’t either. The change that is unavoidably being demanded now is of leader.
So what happens now? Johnson Ultra Jacob Rees-Mogg is brandishing the PM’s mandate and insisting constitutionally he can carry on until he loses a vote in the House of Commons. But where there is a political will, there is always a way. Put simply he either stays or he goes, either resigning or being forced out.
There is always the possibility the PM chooses to resign, accepting his departure is inevitable and bringing an end to the humiliation. He has shown no sign of going willingly and few allies expect him to. Colleagues were given a taster of that last night when one asked if he had considered quitting. “F*** that” came the Prime Minister’s reply.
Men In Grey Suits
An increasing number of MPs want the chairman of the 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady, to tell the PM he has lost the confidence of the party and it is time to go. That is what persuaded Theresa May her time was up. Others want his Cabinet to tell him. Former minister Nick Gibb has called on ministers to tell him he has to go. But he hasn’t taken Rishi Sunak or Sajid Javid’s advice on that. So who would he listen to? Would Jacob Rees-Mogg or Nadine Dorries ever tell him the game was up and would he listen to them if they did?
A General Election
There isn’t much Johnson and Keir Starmer agree on, but this could be one area. The PM has reportedly put the idea of an early general election on the table to frighten his MPs into obedience. They know with Johnson as leader and the party in the polling doldrums, many of them would pay the electoral price. Without the Fixed term Parliament Act, Johnson has the option at will to call an election. Meanwhile Sir Keir is in agreement, although for different reasons: The Government is collapsing and the country needs a fresh start with a snap election. His route to achieve this would be to table a Parliamentary motion of no confidence in the Government. But he also knows the longer Johnson remains in power, the more Labour’s ratings will rise.
A Vote Of Confidence
Under the current backbench rules Johnson cannot face another confidence vote for a year. But those are the current rules and rebels have them in their sights and hope to force him out before the summer recess. The executive of the backbench 1922 Committee is expected to meet as soon as today to fix the date for the election of its new members. That is likely to be July 13th. Both sides will try to get their people elected.
Even some of the PM’s critics don’t like the look of changing the rules and re-running the vote along the same lines. They fear it would leave a future leader constantly looking over their shoulder.
One alternative being talked up is that the Committee would change the rules by setting a higher threshold of at least 40% of Tory MPs demanding another vote of confidence. Rebels, or as they now call themselves – the mainstream – are confident they can win the vote this time round and with the latest great resignation now hitting double figures, the PM will be nervous.
Nothing Much Happens
What is Johnson’s best hope? Lethargy, panic and general exhaustion lead to a strange, eerie and unhappy silence. Tory MPs decide between themselves that everyone would be better off taking themselves off for a recess of licking wounds and plotting next steps. This scenario buys Johnson a couple of months (and means he makes it past Theresa May in terms of longevity in office) but it is hard to see this Hail Mary pass getting him to, or through, conference.
Runners and Riders
The one thing that has saved Johnson so far is the absence of an obvious successor. Our consultant Andrew McQuillan takes a look at the runners and riders.
Despite his own travails – the scandal surrounding his wife’s tax affairs and his brand becoming entangled with the current economic slump – Rishi Sunak remains a contender in the race to replace the Prime Minister. While his resignation letter did ponder whether this would be his last ministerial role, he clearly still has the ambition and requisite clout within the party and across the country to launch a credible bid for the top job.
The new Chancellor is one of the few ministers who can claim to have delivered a tangible success during the Johnson era in the form of the vaccine programme. Many have questioned why one of the smartest operators in Westminster continues to stay close to the Prime Minister, though Zahawi has probably surmised that in time-old Tory fashion, he who wields the knife rarely wears the crown. His promotion to Chancellor – instead of Liz Truss -suggests he is the candidate Boris most fears.
A darling of the membership – frequently polling as their favourite Cabinet member – Liz Truss has been keen to stress her fealty to Johnson, despite her less than subtle leadership manoeuvrings on Instagram and in the corridors of the 5 Hertford Street private members club over recent months. While she clearly has hopes of being a Prime Minister for the TikTok age, similar levels of enthusiasm and belief are not shared widely among her parliamentary colleagues.
Regarded as having led an effective UK response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the former Scots Guard is spoken of in some quarters as the most likely candidate to return the Conservatives to a more conventional form of leadership. An MP for a northern constituency with an extensive Scottish personal hinterland, he is viewed by anxious Scottish Tories as their last hope in the battle against the nationalists.
Respected in Westminster – and that is only likely to have increased having walked out on Boris Johnson for a second time – Sajid Javid will always feature in these discussions. While an experienced ministerial performer with a compelling backstory, doubts remain whether he has the requisite panache to be an effective and successful frontman.
Regularly on the fringes of leadership discussions, Mordaunt has become increasingly popular with the party membership on the back of her stint as Trade Minister, where she has been able to burnish her ‘Global Britain’ credentials. Despite an at times antagonistic relationship with Johnson, she has however yet to break cover and call for him to go, and that could count against her.
A stalwart of the Johnson era, Patel’s oscillating fortunes during her tenure at the Home Office are unlikely to have done her leadership ambitions any favours. However, for those on the right of the party, she will be viewed as a plausible candidate.
The man Boris Johnson vanquished in 2019 has been on a fairly obvious campaign footing over recent months, proselytising frequently on what he would do differently from the current Prime Minister. However, his popularity amongst moderates should not be mistaken for anything wider and deeper amongst his MP colleagues and the party membership.
Vocal chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tugendhat has been a persistent thorn in the Government’s side on a host of issues, most notably the fiasco that was the Afghanistan withdrawal. His lack of ministerial experience will likely count against him should he run now, but there is always next time.
While she may not run this time, Kemi Badenoch has carved out a niche as one of the more cerebral members of the junior ministerial ranks. A committed Brexiteer who has used her stint as Equalities Minister to take a combative stance on social and cultural issues, she is undoubtedly a candidate for the future.