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Double Defeat And Dowden Resignation Not Enough To Spark New Push To Oust Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson in Rwanda for the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit

7 min read

Despite a disastrous double by-election defeat and a Cabinet resignation Boris Johnson seems set to cling on as Tory leader as rebels fail to agree on a mechanism to oust him or his likely replacement.

The Prime Minister was swimming in his hotel pool in the Rwandan capital Kigali during the Commonwealth summit when Conservative party co-chair Oliver Dowden rang early on Friday morning to say he was about to announce he was stepping down.

Overnight they had resoundingly lost the seat of Wakefield in West Yorkshire to Labour, while the Liberal Democrats had pulled off a stunning victory in Devon to overhaul a majority of more than 24,000 in Tiverton and Honiton.

“I think that it was basically the voters in those two constituencies putting the government on notice,” a backbencher remarked.

After a punishing few weeks it was the last thing Johnson needed, and sparked suggestions he could face another attempt to unseat him after the vote of no confidence was triggered earlier this month.

But having faced that down with a narrow victory he is now presumed safe from another vote for a year unless the internal rules of the Tory party are changed, which still seems out of reach for those MPs who are determined to remove him.

A former Cabinet minister told PoliticsHome the PM is unlikely to be challenged until the report by the Privileges Committee into the so-called “partygate” row.

“[If] a significant Cabinet figure, certainly more significant than Oliver Dowden, were to say, ‘I'm resigning and I would be prepared if necessary to stand for the leadership of the party,’ that's what you actually need,” they added. 

They also said it is possible to have another vote if “the thing became pressing”, but  believed "the problem is that if you're trying to get rid of a party leader, you really have to have another party leader in mind".

They continued: “It was very clear to me that essentially we kind of stumbled into having that confidence vote because there's an awful lot of new MPs who frankly are not used to just how tough it can be at Westminster, and who panicked and put in their letter of no confidence without thinking, 'Hang on, who would I put in his place?'”

The lack of an obvious replacement for Johnson is not preventing some from looking to change the rules to allow for another leadership contest, however.

Any alteration to the rules would require agreement among the executive members of the backbench 1922 Committee of Tory MPs.

The group’s chairman Sir Graham Brady is keeping his customary counsel on such matters, but its treasurer Sir Geoffrey Clifton Brown gave the clearest indication yet the rules could be changed on Friday morning.

Elections to the executive, due before Parliament’s summer recess on 21 July set off a flurry of stories about who will stand, with the Telegraph reporting government Whips are trying to pack it with loyalists, while The Times says Tory rebels are planning a takeover of the committee.

Brady is expected to stay on as chair, and is known to want to spend at least another year in the role so he can overtake Edward du Cann as the longest serving ’22 boss in its 100-year history.

Downing Street seems unlikely to try and replace him after a similar attempt to install a candidate favoured by the government last year failed badly.

But the balance of the 18-member executive is thought to already be slightly against them, and with one loyalist, Jason McCartney, stepping down as he has left the backbenches to be a PPS to the Attorney General, anti-Johnson MPs could become the majority.

For now it seems as though the by-election defeats, despite the scale of the loss in Tiverton and Honiton, don't seem to likely to set off a further contest.

“We had the vote of confidence a couple of weeks ago, and really the by-elections had already been factored into the equation,” a veteran Tory MP told PoliticsHome.

“Everybody knew at that stage that we weren't going to do well, so I don't think that the results in themselves really change anything.

“The Dowden resignation does a bit. It was widely rumoured that he was going to be sacked anyway, so it may be the case that he jumped before he was pushed.

“But nevertheless, to lose a party chairman is quite bad.”

Dowden’s departure, the first chink in the solid wall of ministerial support Johnson has continued to enjoy, was understood to be a surprise to Number 10, after he had helped Johnson prepare for Prime Minister’s Questions – as he has done for multiple party leaders – as usual on Wednesday.

The PM responded by speaking to his Chancellor Rishi Sunak and the Chief Whip Chris Heaton-Harris, and Downing Street embarked on a ring round to shore up support and ensure no further Cabinet ministers would be following the former culture secretary out the door.

Sunak, who has been notably slow out of the blocks to show support for the PM in recent crises – on one occasion escaping all the way to Devon to avoid being in the chamber for a “partygate” apology – was the first Cabinet minister to respond on social media this time.

But it was noticeable the name of his boss was absent from his tweet, as it was from the education secretary Nadhim Zahawi’s post responding to the by-election results.

Whereas previously the whole Cabinet had rowed in behind the PM when he faced difficult headlines over “partygate”, this time it fell simply to the longstanding Praetorian guard of Nadine Dorries, Conor Burns and Nigel Adams.

Three years ago Dowden said Johnson was the only “logical answer” to lead the party, but his surprise early morning resignation letter – published just before he was about to embark on a tough media round – doesn’t contain the usual pledge to continue to support the PM from the backbenches.

“I think that what he was trying to do, however, was to give a coded signal to get rid of Boris, as what was interesting was that he said he would continue to be loyal to the Conservative Party – but he didn’t say anything about being loyal to Boris,” a Tory MP said.

“But the difficulty is because of a lack of organisation people shot too quickly, we had an early vote of confidence, which I would have thought would have been far better after the by-election results, and so Johnson survived."

In much the same way he promised to “bash on” after winning the confidence vote, the PM vowed to "keep going” after Friday’s disappointments.

Speaking at a press conference in Rwanda on Friday afternoon, Johnson said: "No doubt people will continue to beat me up – and say this or that and to attack me.

“That's fine, that's quite right. That is the job of politicians. In the end voters, journalists – they have no one to make their complaints to.

"I have to take that. But I also have to get on with the job of delivering for the people of this country. And that's what I was elected to do.”

It was widely rumoured that [Dowden] was going to be sacked anyway, so it may be the case that he jumped before he was pushed

A normally loyal backbencher said the by-election results could not be ignored, and showed that Tory voters were sending a message that the party needs to do better.

But asked if they can do that with Johnson still at the helm they said: “No, not at the moment certainly, because he's still wounded by ‘partygate’.

“But my suspicion actually now is that ‘partygate’ is less of a factor with the voters, and what is more of a factor is their concern about the cost of living crisis.”

A government source said: “I think no one is taking these results and thinking 'ah everything’s fine', but at the same time it was expected after the last few weeks, and now we just need to get on with the job without all of the 'politics' distracting everyone.”

They added that the government needs to keep focusing on the cost of living, saying there are “huge challenges ahead”.

The source also suggested Dowden’s resignation is more about taking blame away from Johnson rather that pushing it towards him, saying the former co-party chair has “jumped on the grenade”.

They added: “No doubt he will be back in government in years to come.”

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