Tory Rebels Step Up Plans To Get Rid Of Boris Johnson In Wake Of Pincher Allegations
Waiting for Boris Johnson as he returns to London from his eight-day overseas trip is a Conservative party that is hardening against him and plotting its next move to get rid of him.
It is an old Westminster adage that Prime Ministers who are in trouble at home will often look to the international stage for some respite.
While Johnson's back-to-back trips to Rwanda, Germany and Spain were long in the diary, they meant he was thousands of miles away from Downing Street when the Tories sensationally lost two by-elections in Yorkshire and Devon, and when he riled Conservative back benchers by revealing to reporters that he was "actively thinking" about a third term as Prime Minister.
But Johnson had no such relief on Friday morning when swathes of Conservative MPs reacted with dismay to his handling of the Chris Pincher saga.
Pincher, the Tory MP for Tamworth, resigned as as Deputy Chief Whip on Thursday evening after being accused of groping two men at a central London club the night before.
The Prime Minister initally stuck by Pincher, however, insisting that no further action was necessary. This outraged Conservative MPs who felt he should have lost the whip immediately, and that Johnson was doing the government needless damage by delaying the inevitable.
The Prime Minister eventually stripped Pincher of the Conservative whip late on Friday afternoon.
There was also bewilderment inside Downing Street. One government source expressed frustration that Johnson's top team was repeating past mistakes by failing to take action sooner, telling PoliticsHome on Friday morning that removing the whip was "the only option".
For Tory rebels, Johnson's handling of the Pincher affair was yet another example of why he had to go. "It is the latest reason why he should resign and allow our party to have a fresh start," said one.
But even before the Pincher row erupted on Thursday night, the Conservative party was becoming increasingly exasperated with Johnson's leadership, with rebels planning their next opportunity to oust him having failed to do so at last month's vote of no confidence.
The upcoming 1922 Committee election poses a moment of danger to the Prime Minister.
One former minister told PoliticsHome that unlike the vote of no confidence, in which there was very little coordination among Conservative MPs, there is a "determination” among rebels to ensure that the new-look committee is controlled by Tories who are not Johnson loyalists.
The committee has the power to change Tory party rules so that a new confidence vote can take place within 12 months, potentially as soon as the autumn, meaning its membership could be critical.
Britain's most eminent historian of prime ministers, Sir Anthony Seldon, who is writing a biography of Johnson, this week predicted that he would be booted out of Downing Street in the autumn.
While the plotting to oust Johnson continues, in the House of Commons the party is becoming more rebellious. One former Secretary of State said Tory MPs feel more "emboldened" to defy the whip after over 40 per cent of the party voted against Johnson at last month's confidence vote.
This was demonstrated on Wednesday when several high-profile Tory MPs including former leader Iain Duncan Smith, ex-Northern Secretary Julian Smith, and Northern Ireland Affairs Committee Chair Simon Hoare forced ministers to accept a Labour amendment to the Troubles legacy bill.
The rebellion caught the Northern Ireland Office off guard and forced it into a major U-turn.
Johnson could face a major scrap with the Tory back benches in the coming weeks as another piece of legislation pertaining to Northern Ireland journeys through Parliament: the contentious bill which seeks to unilaterally scrap large parts of the post-Brexit protocol.
Dozens of Conservative MPs - including ex-Prime Minister Theresa May, who said the bill would break international law and tarnish the UK's global reputation - abstained when the House of Commons voted on the legislation at its second reading on Monday.
Not one Tory MP voted against the bill, but PoliticsHome understands that Conservative rebels are keeping their powder dry for when amendments are tabled.
Sir Bob Neill, who chairs the Justice Select Committee, has tabled an amendment that would force ministers to secure parliamentary approval before exercising the powers contained within the bill. Ex- Justice Secretary Robert Buckland is also thought to be considering putting one forward.
One former senior minister suggested that some rebel MPs didn't vote against the legislation on Monday night because they didn't want to damage their chances of making it into the next leader's Cabinet.
"Some colleagues didn’t want to be too offside with the Brexit wing of the party with future Cabinet and leadership teams in mind," they said.
In the meantime, the Prime Minister's inner circle continues to fight on, with the belief that he still represents the party's best chance of winning the next general election.
David Canzini, Johnson's Chief of Staff, told a weekly meeting of special advisers that if Conservative MPs were going to oust him, there would have to be a general election.
He asked them in that case, who would your MP most want stepping off the bus in their constituency to help campaign, and the response was Johnson.
In three weeks' time Parliament will break up for its long summer recess. Those three weeks could prove to be be some of the rockiest of Johnson's political career.
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