Liz Truss Leadership "Schmooze Operation" Is In Full Swing As Boris Johnson's Popularity Plummets
As the Tory party continues to plummet in the polls, covert and tactical “schmooze operations” have been gaining pace in Westminster, with senior cabinet ministers including Liz Truss believed to be actively working to win the support of party influencers who would back them in a leadership challenge.
In Truss’s parliamentary office, gatherings dubbed “fizz with Liz” have taken place on Monday evenings.
Last week the foreign secretary hosted a group of Scottish Conservative MPs in her office, according to sources.
Among those in attendance were the Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross, who has dramatically called for Boris Johnson's resignation, and former vice chairman of the Conservative Party, Andrew Bowie.
Former education secretary Gavin Williamson has also recently attended a “fizz with Liz” session, and this evening another group of MPs will join the foreign secretary for drinks before she heads to Australia.
An ally of Truss insisted that the meetings were not out of the ordinary. "Liz engages regularly with parliamentary colleagues to discuss foreign policy," they told PoliticsHome. "It's the normal way of doing business."
PoliticsHome understands that big names including Theresa May, Tobias Ellwood and Williamson have been touted by allies of leadership hopefuls as significant players in winning support to become the future Tory leader.
Steve Baker, the influential leader of the pro-Brexit European Research Group, which was instrumental in bringing down May's leadership in 2019, and an active member of the lockdown-sceptic Covid Recovery Group, has also been labelled “crucial” and a possible kingmaker in any upcoming contest.
"I was busy in the last leadership election,” Baker, who backed Boris Johnson for leader in 2019, told PoliticsHome.
“I’d expect to be busy in the next one. I’ve no idea on behalf of whom."
Johnson's leadership has been severely bruised by a string of allegations of parties held in Downing Street while lockdown restrictions in England prohibited social mixing. How much Johnson knew about that gatherings is the subject of an ongoing inquiry by senior civil servant Sue Gray.
Johnson insists there was no wrongdoing on his part, and believed the gatherings he's known to have attended to be "work events", and appears to have no intention of standing down from his role as Prime Minister.
But as Labour continued to soar in the polls, with a survey conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies today putting them 13 points ahead of the Tories, the possibility of a vote of no confidence in Johnson looks increasingly likely.
An insider working for a leadership hopeful told PoliticsHome today that they believed a leadership challenge is a matter “when not if” and that “every MP is fair game” in the battle for backings.
Rishi Sunak, Penny Mordaunt, Priti Patel, Sajid Javid, Nadhim Zahawi and Jeremy Hunt have all been touted as potential contenders to succeed the Prime Minister.
Today an ally of Mordaunt did not rule out a bid from the trade policy minister, who it is believed carries significant support across the party.
Most Conservative MPs have declared that they will await the findings of Gray’s inquiry into Downing Street and Whitehall parties before making any definitive judgements on Johnson’s future.
However, even if the Prime Minister is cleared by Gray of any criminality, PoliticsHome has been told there is enough anger across the country and within the party for a leadership contest to go ahead anyway.
It is understood that the number of letters sent to 1922 committee chair Sir Graham Brady, expressing no confidence in Johnson’s leadership, now sits above 25.
Six MPs have gone on record to declare they have done so, including Ross, Andrew Bridgen, Caroline Nokes and Sir Roger Gale.
A total of 54 letters are required for a leadership contest to be triggered. Well-placed sources suggest that once one leadership camp sets the wheels of a challenge in motion, other high-profile contenders will quickly follow.
For now, senior figures such as Truss and Sunak need to maintain a delicate balance between adhering to collective responsibility, and not finding themselves overly entangled in the public backlash to Johnson’s leadership.
The Prime Minister, for now, maintains a loyal following, particularly among MPs elected in the 2019 general election.
One backbencher told PoliticsHome that since Thursday last week it has been “all quiet on the Western front” in new intake Tory MP Whatsapp groups.
“PPSs are trying to direct us to other issues that have been coming forward, but you kind of expect them to,” the MP said.
“But it’s been quiet.”
The backbencher added, metaphorically, that of the 2019 intake, Johnson could “probably kill some of them tomorrow and they would still be backing him”.
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe