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20 January 2022

Could Boris Johnson yet survive as Prime Minister?

Having avoided a no-confidence vote, the Prime Minister’s strategy is to play for time and hope that MPs’ anger dissipates.

By Ailbhe Rea

Could Boris Johnson manage to cling on as Prime Minister despite everything? That is the question on everyone’s mind in Westminster this morning after Johnson managed to survive an extraordinary day in politics that began with a bang and ended on something of a whimper.

As I wrote last night, Christian Wakeford’s defection to Labour moments before PMQs did something to stabilise the mood among angry Conservative backbenchers. They rallied behind Johnson far more vocally than last week and reconsidered submitting letters of no-confidence, annoyed that Labour had been handed an easy stick to beat the Prime Minister with. The spectacle of an MP crossing the floor to the opposition benches would normally be the stuff of nightmares for a prime minister – but in this case, it has bought him some time.

Last night it felt like the mood was largely unchanged but that Conservative MPs had run out of steam or bottled it, or that they simply wanted to wait until Sue Gray’s report was released before acting. In many cases, this is not because they don’t expect to move against Johnson afterwards but because a process is in place and they think it makes sense to pause. 

But now the question is whether Johnson might just manage to hold on in No 10, having survived the revelations of recent weeks. First he asked for MPs to wait until Gray’s report, with the promise of a full statement when it is released, which allowed him to pull through last week’s PMQs despite a silent and smouldering parliamentary party behind him. Now his whips’ threats and the humiliation wrought by Wakeford has persuaded Tory MPs to wait yet again.

This is what a successful strategy to keep Boris Johnson in place looks like. As one senior Tory puts it: there will be no sudden moment or silver bullet that banishes the anger of Conservative MPs. Rather, the PM will kick the can down the road and delay the point at which the 54-letter threshold is reached again and again until some of that anger dissipates and people gradually move on. 

​​​​​There is still a broad consensus among Conservative MPs that Boris Johnson will not lead them into the next general election. But it seems more likely this morning that he might be able to go on his own terms, and further into the future, than appeared possible yesterday morning. But yesterday was also a reminder that a day, or even a morning, is a long time in politics. The mood by this evening could be very different again.

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