The Tory plotters are not hard to spot. In the glass atrium of parliament’s Portcullis House, they are huddled by the coffee shop. Blocking narrow corridors, they whisper furtively in tight circles. In the tea rooms, libraries, bars and every other inch of Westminster, there is only one item on the agenda: Boris Johnson’s future.
Downing Street had hoped Monday’s publication of a long-awaited report into lockdown-breaking Whitehall parties would hand Johnson a reprieve from the so-called partygate scandal. But the police’s last-minute announcement of their own probe into incidents under investigation in the report will prolong the saga for weeks, if not months, until their work is complete.
Despite these criminal inquiries — and a truculent apology in the House of Commons — the prime minister appears safe. The critical 54 letters of no confidence from MPs required to trigger a vote on his future have failed to flow in. For this, he has his opponents to thank.
Tory fury towards Johnson is real and potent. There is, however, no single opponent, policy, or concerted movement, to oust him. That his enemies are diverse and span all wings of the party — left and right, Brexit and Remain, old and young — might appear acutely dangerous. Oddly, it is now his greatest protection.
Back in 2018, when Theresa May faced a no-confidence vote over her Brexit policy, there was a clear opposition. The European Research Group of ardent Leavers was a party within the Tory party. The caucus was united around a single aim: ousting her and pushing for a harder Brexit. They also had, in Johnson, a candidate ready to install in Downing Street. The anti-Boris plotters have none of these things. They do not have a coherent alternative policy platform to drive a wedge between the prime minister and his party. Some libertarian discontents, such as former minister Steve Baker, want Johnson to junk his net zero green policies. Traditional Tories, such as the former Brexit secretary David Davis, have urged Johnson to jettison an impending tax rise in April.
There are those on the Tory left, such as former chief whip Julian Smith, who are opposed to the populist tone and style of Johnson’s government. And then there are the lockdown sceptics, who think the prime minister has made the wrong calls during the pandemic. And do not forget the ambitious opportunists, who see a moment to cause havoc.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, a cabinet minister who was influential in deposing May, says there is no momentum behind the current leadership challenge. “I know a thing or two about putting in letters and the mood just isn’t there.” He adds that at a meeting of the parliamentary party on Monday evening, “no one said, ‘Go now’, and there weren’t many wavering backbenchers. Boris has support throughout the party.”
Despite this confidence, the hushed conversations about Johnson are happening and the contest to replace him has already begun. “Soundings” about leadership support have been taking place among Tory MPs for months. Weekend dinners to shore up potential contenders have become a weekly occurrence. Donors are being discreetly tapped. WhatsApp groups have been formed to corral critics of the prime minister into action. But none of this is happening in a coherent fashion.
If there is a contest to replace Johnson in the near future, there is a risk it would be too fragmented to succeed. At least seven contenders are seriously considering their candidacy: chancellor Rishi Sunak, foreign secretary Liz Truss, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi, health secretary Sajid Javid, former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, chair of the foreign affairs select committee Tom Tugendhat and trade minister Penny Mordaunt. One party grandee sighs at the thought of a contest in the near future: “It will be bloody messy.”
At present, it is unclear how these factions could unite into a credible force against Johnson. If the prime minister is served a fixed penalty notice by the police for breaking his own Covid laws, that may do it. Or if indisputable evidence emerges that he misled parliament, that could also deal the killer blow. But until such dramatic events come to pass, Johnson can count himself lucky in the sheer range and diversity of his enemies.