Tory Rebels Admit “We Tried, We Lost” As Plans To Change Rules On Ousting Leader Are Put On Ice
Boris Johnson appears unlikely to face another vote of confidence in his leadership this year (Alamy)
Speculation that Boris Johnson could face a second confidence vote within a year has been played down by rebel Tory MPs who insist they do not intend to force a rule change to allow for one.
Under the current system as administered by the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs, if a serving leader survives a confidence vote, they are immune from further challenges for the following 12 months.
After the prime minister only narrowly won Monday’s ballot of MPs by 211 to 148, there were suggestions that those who continue to oppose him would try to force changes to the internal party rulebook.
Philip Dunne, a former health minister and key ally of leadership rival Jeremy Hunt, warned on Tuesday that “this is not over”, while MP Tobias Ellwood, who is also critical of Johnson, suggested that a change to Tory leadership rules was "what the 1922 Committee are actually looking at”.
But one MP who voted against Johnson on Monday questioned the logic of pushing for another ballot before twelve months were up.
“What's the point in another vote now? You'd get the same result wouldn't you?” they told PoliticsHome.
“He's won a vote by 60 [Johnson won by 63 votes], not by one, and yes you might get a slightly different result but the idea of re-running it just seems to be madness to me,” they added.
“We've had a vote – quite rightly, I think there were huge concerns in the country over things that have happened – we tried, we lost, now we have to get behind the winning side."
They likened repeating a confidence vote in their leader to the smaller party immediately pushing for a repeat of a general election following a defeat.
"The losing party and their supporters have to let the government get on and govern, even if they don't like it,” the rebel MP said.
The 1922 chair Sir Graham Brady has confirmed that it would be “technically” possible for the committee’s executive to alter the regulations to reduce the time between confidence votes, but said at present there must be “a period of grace”.
While one influential senior Tory MP who voted against Johnson told PoliticsHome they were not planning on lobbying the 1922 to change the rules, they added that they were "pleased it is now generally understood the rules can be changed”.
Writing for The Times on Wednesday, former Cabinet minister David Davis, one of Johnson's staunchest critics since the partygate scandal broke, also said he was sceptical about changing the rules, arguing it would have the unintended consequence of also weakening the position of any subsequent party leader.
“I do not support changing the interval between confidence votes, as was threatened with Theresa May at an equivalent point in the process with her,” he wrote in The Times.
“Doing so threatens to destabilise every future Conservative leader, which would be a disastrous outcome to this episode.”
Another rebel MP told PoliticsHome they believed that as democratically-elected politicians “we have to draw a line” under the result and give the PM “the chance to turn things around”.
But they added: “He needs to reflect on this, carrying on with more of the same would be foolish, given he's got 40% of his MPs seriously concerned enough to want rid of him. But I'm sure he understands that.”
Cabinet ministers, all of whom have publicly expressed their support for Johnson, have argued against changing the leadership contest system. On Tuesday, deputy prime minister Dominic Raab told the BBC that “fiddling with the rules when you don’t like the result is a bad look”.
Health secretary Sajid Javid agreed. “I think most people would think if you sort of changed the rules, it would be grossly unfair, it would be the wrong thing to do, so I wouldn’t support that," he told Times Radio.
But speculation continues that rules could still be changed further down the line, particularly if further party upset is unleashed by the result of two forthcoming by-elections, which the Conservatives are widely expected to lose, or if an ongoing independent parliamentary inquiry concludes Johnson lied to parliament over lockdown gatherings in Downing Street.
“There is a majority of 1922 officers who will agree to change the rules when the time is right,” But an opponent of Johnson told The Times.
They said they expected the change to happen before the Conservative party’s annual conference in October. This could however be complicated by the likelihood of elections for the 1922 Committee’s executive in the coming weeks.
While several of the committee's members have publicly expressed their opposition to Johnson, one MP suggested to PoliticsHome they will focus on their own re-election before looking at updating their confidence vote rules.
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