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20 January 2022

David Gauke

When is the best moment for Tory rebels to strike against Boris Johnson?

If Conservative MPs wait until after the local elections to remove the Prime Minister they risk missing their chance.

As regular readers of these columns will have observed, I am not a wholehearted and enthusiastic supporter of the Prime Minister. I have some reservations about his policies and his character. One of them is a disregard for the standards we should expect of his office. The PM’s behaviour over the Downing Street parties confirms this yet again. The country deserves better and I think he should resign. But I am not sure I would have sent a letter to Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee, calling for a vote of confidence had I still been a Conservative MP. Not yet.  

The reason for this is that if the Prime Minister comfortably saw off a no-confidence vote from Tory MPs, his position would be strengthened. The 1922 Committee rules state that he would be protected from another no-confidence vote for 12 months. These rules may change but the short-term impact of such a vote could help the Prime Minister. As Gavin Barwell sets out in his excellent account of the last two years of Theresa May’s premiership, the triggering of the failed December 2018 no-confidence vote was a lucky break for her.

[See also: How could Conservative MPs remove Boris Johnson as leader?]

I would want the no-confidence vote to occur when there was a good chance for success. There are two arguments for waiting.  

First, a vote before Sue Gray’s report is completed allows the Prime Minister to claim that the vote is premature. A supposedly crucial piece of evidence will shortly be made available and, it will be argued, it is an affront to natural justice to remove the Prime Minister without sight of the inquiry’s conclusions.

Much of this is specious. Gray is someone of integrity but she is a serving civil servant. She is constrained by her remit and her powers and, no doubt, her findings will be presented by the government in as favourable a way as possible to the Prime Minister. There is already sufficient evidence in the public domain to establish that Johnson has presided over a Downing Street operation that paid scant respect to the rules under which most of us lived.

Nonetheless, some Conservatives will sincerely take the view that it is only fair to wait a few more days to read the report. How should Johnson-sceptics respond? I would be tempted to go along with it, but set the expectations bar high. “On the face of it, there was a culture of rule-breaking in Downing Street and I think the Prime Minister has to take responsibility for that,” I might say. “But if Sue Gray says that the evidence overwhelmingly points to the Prime Minister being unaware of rule breaches, that it was entirely understandable for him to think that the 20 May drinks party was a work event, that there was no evidence to suggest that concerns about it were raised with him, and that she concludes he was a vigilant upholder of the lockdown rules, I will accept her judgement. Of course, if those tests are not clearly met, then, with much regret… etc, etc.”

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The Prime Minister has also promised to make a statement to parliament. This is not the best forum for forensic scrutiny but he will no longer have an excuse not to answer about his own behaviour.  

How that statement is received will be important. Johnson’s supporters will want to make this as tribal a moment as possible as the backbenchers rally around their leader, but Conservative MPs should be brave enough to ask searching factual questions that Johnson could be expected to answer. (Opposition MPs will also do this but it is harder to dismiss questions from your own side.) Given that his “work event” defence of his actions is so absurd, this may not go well for him. If he lies or even adopts his usual approach of blustering evasiveness, this should be enough to force more MPs to act.  

The second argument for delay is that even with a new leader, the next few months will be very difficult for the Conservative Party. Inflation will be outstripping pay increases, taxes will be going up and local elections will be fought. The probability is that the Conservative Party will take an electoral kicking in May and a new prime minister will have no honeymoon period whatsoever.

In an ideal world for the Conservatives, a change of leader would wait until after the local elections. It is possible some MPs may vote for Johnson in a confidence vote held before May as a consequence.

This may suggest waiting until after the local elections. I would be wary of this argument. Without new revelations about lockdown breaches, several months will have elapsed, momentum will be lost, new issues might have distracted the nation (a Russian invasion of Ukraine, say), and the so-called greased piglet might have escaped. Waiting would also tell us something about Conservative MPs – they are prepared to put up with a lack of integrity but losing control of Wandsworth council is beyond the pale. It all feels a bit grubby.

So my advice to my former colleagues who want a change of prime minister? Hold fire for today; set the bar high for Sue Gray to get the Prime Minister off the hook; ensure an effective operation in the Commons chamber for when the Prime Minister makes his statement with tight, searching questions; and prepare to strike. Your best chance is imminent.

[See also: David Gauke: How my party lost its way]

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