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Boris Johnson hangs on because there is no compelling leader-in-waiting

Neither Rishi Sunak, nor Liz Truss, have yet constructed a formidable machine in parliament.

By Stephen Bush

Conservative politicians are furious. One bemoans the stupidity and thoughtlessness of their party’s leadership and predicts that the local elections in May will be “a catastrophe”. Another complains that they are spending most of their free evenings persuading their colleagues not to quit the party or fight the next election as independent candidates. A third brands the party membership – only a quarter of whom, according to an Opinium survey released on 17 January, think that Boris Johnson should stand down – as “witless”.

The good news for the Prime Minister is these three politicians have something in common: they are councillors facing difficult local elections in May, not MPs who hold Johnson’s fate in their hands. Similar opinions can be heard among the parliamentary party, but they are rarer.

Although most MPs accept that the slew of lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street and across Whitehall have damaged Johnson’s standing, perhaps fatally, the mood is not one of immediate revolt. It helps, of course, that the next election is at least two years away and that the electoral waters can be tested by the party’s luckless councillors before Johnson leads the party into another national contest.

[See also: Why Boris Johnson’s No 10 is so dysfunctional]

One should consider, too, the available replacements. Neither Rishi Sunak (the bookies’ favourite and the preferred choice of the party membership, according to Opinium) nor Liz Truss, who consistently tops ConservativeHome’s survey of likely future party leaders, have yet constructed a formidable machine in parliament.

Of the cabinet ministers frequently discussed as leadership contenders, it is Priti Patel who has the most well-established operation at Westminster. She, or at least her office, is good at remembering personal details about MPs, such as birthdays, the ambitions of their children and other small acts of cultivation that help build a parliamentary following.

Patel’s political stock is low, however, because of the government’s failure to halt migrants from crossing the Channel. One MP on the right of the party, who has long admired Patel and talked up her prospects as a future leader, despairingly joked to me that “our Priti has developed a fault – I hope we’ve got the receipt somewhere”.

As for Sunak and Truss, they both have a similar problem: how to navigate their proximity, or lack thereof, to the Prime Minister. Truss has her own distinct identity as an unashamed defender of free markets and lower taxes, both causes that Johnson championed before becoming Prime Minister, yet she is ultimately a Johnson loyalist and a candidate with similar assets as him. “If Labour’s strength is reassuring steadiness,” one Tory MP told me, “the solution can’t be a more ideologically driven and competent version of Johnson.” That Truss is relatively unknown outside Westminster makes her a riskier bet for any MP worried that they will lose their seat if the next leader turns out to be a dud.

[See also: Commons Confidential: Will Allegra be next to turn on Boris Johnson?]

For Sunak, the tricky task of balancing loyalty to the incumbent Prime Minister with his own leadership ambitions is fraught with risk. One MP complained crudely that the Chancellor should “shit or get off the pot” and that his attempt to position himself as both a loyal cabinet minister and a quiet opponent of the ideological heresies of the Johnson era simply makes him look weak and shifty.

Sunak’s biggest advantage over Truss is that the next Budget, which will be delivered on 23 March, is another opportunity to enhance his national profile. His biggest weakness is that a politically frail government, coupled with a tough economic backdrop, could bring him down as well as Johnson.

As a result, some MPs are thinking longingly of Jeremy Hunt. He has served on the back benches throughout the Johnson era and is seen as best placed to refresh the Conservative government. He is untainted by lingering questions over the Covid-19 pandemic or a rotten culture in Whitehall. But though Hunt has signalled that he might still have leadership ambitions, he does not have an organised operation in parliament. MPs who are, as one put it to me, “open” to the former health secretary complain that they have not heard from either him or his closest allies.

Johnson’s survival – for now – reflects the reality that none of the frontrunners to succeed him enjoys supremacy within the parliamentary party. But this could change: Sunak’s Budget could cause his stock to leap or bring his leadership hopes to an abrupt end. A Russian invasion of Ukraine could strengthen Truss’s standing among Tory MPs or shatter it. An intensification of the “partygate” scandal could lead anxious MPs to turn to Hunt. Or an unexpected event could force the Prime Minister’s departure at a time of no one’s choosing, with uncertain consequences for the contest to replace him.

So the parliamentary party bides its time – not out of any genuine affection for Johnson, but because there is no unquestioned successor. After all, it’s not urgent: it’s not as if they’re local councillors.

This gives Downing Street the hope that Boris Johnson might yet survive: that uncertainty over his replacement is his biggest asset. The truth, however, is that the one thing certain about Boris Johnson’s present position is that it is unstable, and that the conditions keeping him in place can’t possibly last.

[See also: Leader: The closing of the Conservative mind]

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This article appears in the 19 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the party