ON Tuesday morning of this week, the furore surrounding Boris Johnson’s attendance at a lockdown garden party in May 2020 appeared to be dying down in Westminster. The Prime Minister’s apology in the house had, it seemed, put judgment day on hold until the publication of the now infamous Cabinet Office report from Sue Gray.
One TV clip later, however, and all hell broke loose. Johnson’s suggestion that “nobody told him” the party would break the rules, which he had himself outlined in countless press conferences, stretched credulity. By the evening, there were reports of a ‘pork pie putsch’ led by red wall, 2019 intake MPs. Yesterday, an MP’s defection – and being told by grandee David Davis to go – put further pressure on the embattled PM.
Some suggest that Christian Wakeford’s decision to swap his blue rosette for red helped the PM, in the short term at least. The only thing that makes the Conservative Party happier than knifing its own leader is uniting to slam the Labour Party. Wakeford – who it is fair to say was not the most popular MP on his former benches even before yesterday – has given restive Tories somewhere else to aim their fire.
But regardless – the question across SW1 is simply: how many letters?
If Sir Graham Brady – the Chair of the Tory backbench committee – receives 53 letters from Tory MPs expressing no confidence in the Prime Minister, then he’s duty bound to trigger a vote of no confidence in Johnson. The rebels would need to win that vote by a simply majority, and it’s a vote that the PM’s spokesman has indicated he would indeed fight. If he wins, he’s safe for a year – if he loses, Conservative members would choose the next Prime Minister just two and a half years after the last leadership contest.
But even if the PM survives this almighty scare, it’s clear his rivals are bulking up for a fight they know will come at some point.
How long Boris survives may well depend as much on how appealing his potential successors look as much as it does on his unique ability for political survival. He’s been written off many times before – but this is the toughest fight yet.
The runners and riders
Rishi Sunak – 5/4
Covid-19 turned Rishi Sunak into a bonafide star, with his status as the presumptive heir to the throne quickly established across Westminster. He polls as the most popular politician in Britain with a well-crafted media image. But one Johnson loyalist said “he just doesn’t have much of a network among MPs – his crown as the heir apparent has been created by the media.”
Liz Truss – 9/2
Just 18 months ago Liz Truss’ political career looked to be in decline as rumours swirled in Tory circles that she was set to be sacked from the cabinet. She has since ridden a wave of enthusiasm within the party over her post-Brexit trade deals to become a frontrunner for next PM. Very popular in the party, there are questions about her public appeal.
Jeremy Hunt – 6/1
He made it into the final two last time, before running into the electoral behemoth of Boris. Still seen as a steady hand, which could be appealing post-Johnson.
Michael Gove – 14/1
Does he still want it? Probably. But for all his intellect, Tory MPs and members alike will wonder whether he can bring the public with him.
Tom Tugendhat – 12/1
The Foreign Affairs select committee chair is ex-military and would relish the role of statesman. A battle now may be too soon, but don’t count him out in time.
Penny Mordaunt – 10/1
A popular minister who last time was one of Hunt’s chief lieutenants, there are whispers she could unite the party behind a modernising message.
Sajid Javid – 14/1
A cabinet veteran, he came fourth last time and may go again. Has public appeal, but no natural constituency within the party’s MPs. The City’s man may fancy another shot as Chancellor.
All odds from Betfair