Fri, 24 May 2024

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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Tory MPs Fear Boris Johnson Will Hang On But Cost Them Their Seats At The Next Election

5 min read

Boris Johnson continues to survive major threats to his leadership but among Conservative MPs there is a growing suspicion that he will be their leader come the next election – which could mean they lose it.

Sue Gray's long-awaited report into lockdown parties held in Downing Street and Whitehall was at one point viewed as a potentially fatal knockout blow to the under-pressure Prime Minister. And the the report, published on Wednesday, made uncomfortable reading for Johnson.

Gray said that senior political leadership at the centre of government – an unambiguous reference to 10 Downing Street – "must bear responsibility" for the culture of rule-breaking which incurred 126 Fixed Penalty Notices from the Met Police, including one for the Prime Minister himself.

But as on several occasions since late last year when the partygate saga first exploded into life – a period of near constant turmoil for Johnson – he emerged from this week bruised, but still standing. 

10 Downing Street was on "minister watch" on Thursday, concerned that a frontbencher was going to quit over the Gray report, PoliticsHome understands.

As it was, the next day Paul Holmes MP resigned as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Home Secretary Priti Patel over the report and the "deep mistrust" it had created in the government and the Tory party. He did not submit a letter of no confidence in Johnson, however.

Meanwhile, five Conservative MPs – Bob Neill, Julian Sturdy, John Baron, David Simmonds and Stephen Hammond – added their names to the list of Tory backbenchers who have publicly called on the Prime Minister to resign.

But the findings of the senior civil servant, as damning as they were, failed to provoke an immediate large-scale Tory party rebellion. The 54 letters needed to trigger a vote of no confidence in Johnson have not reached Graham Brady, chair of the Conservative party's 1922 Committee.

Downing Street was keen to draw a line under the saga heading into the weekend.

“We’ve got to get back to talking about the issues which concern the people who put us here, not the issues that have preoccupied Westminster over the last few months," said a senior figure.

Another potential hazard awaits Johnson later this year, when the privileges committee will investigate whether he misled the House of Commons over his involvement in partygate. A minister who is deemed to have knowingly misled parliament is expected to resign.

However, the senior source argued "you cannot fill the many months" between now and the committee of MPs completing its investigation with more discussion about partygate.

"Everybody out there wants to know what we are doing to grow the economy and help them through the cost-of-living crisis, what we are doing to ensure a decent outcome in the Ukraine war.

"Things that matter so much more," they said.

"And yet we have already started talking about yet another process that will be in due course, but not until the other side of the summer, coming into play.”

Perhaps the most striking development in Westminster was happening behind the scenes, where Tory MPs were starting to admit that they were on course to lose the next general election.

One backbencher elected in 2019 told PoliticsHome they now deemed Johnson to be a "loser".

There was discontent among Conservative MPs in the North and the Midlands elected for the first time at last general election, who are "resigned" to the belief that the damage done to the party in recent months means many of them will lose their jobs in 2024.

“There are lots of people in the group who think this will cost us a lot of votes,” said a party source.

“A few months ago we were talking into eating into Labour some more, and now we’re not. A lot of people think if they want to eat into Labour's vote, never mind keep their jobs, then he has to go".

Speaking frankly to PoliticsHome on Wednesday after the Gray report was published, a senior Conservative MP and member of the government concluded: "Today is the day he [Johnson] got in the clear, but also the day when I realised we will lose the next general election."

A Redfield & Wilton Strategies poll published on the same day gave Labour a nine point lead over the Conservatives — their biggest lead with the pollster since Russia invaded Ukraine.

Speculation continues in the background about who could potentially replace the Prime Minister, with unifying candidates conspicuous by their absence.

Nadhim Zahawi, the secretary of state for education, increasingly comes up in conversations with Conservative MPs. His "the boy done good" backstory of an Iraqi refugee who grew up to become a Cabinet minister is thought to appeal to a number of backbenchers. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who has topped recent surveys of Conservative party members, is also a popular choice.

But without a rebellion large enough to trigger a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister (Tory MPs currently believe he'd win it if it did come to pass), Johnson will live to fight another day.

His next moment of danger comes on Thursday 23 June, when two totemic by-elections will take place in Wakefield, which Labour looks likely to regain, and Tiverton and Honiton, where the Liberal Democrats are hoping to pull off another seismic victory over the Tories in the South.

Stephen Hammond, who called for Johnson to quit on Thursday, last month told PoliticsHome's podcast The Rundown that defeat on 23 June would be the trigger for a no confidence vote.

If the former minister is right, then the Prime Minister's knack for survival may be just a few weeks away from its biggest challenge yet.

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