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28 January 2022

Why Boris Johnson may survive – for now

As Tory anger dissipates, the prospect of MPs ousting the Prime Minister is fading.

By Harry Lambert

In June 2021, 41 per cent of voters approved of Boris Johnson, while only 38 per cent opposed him; a net positive rating, even if mild, is commendable for any sitting prime minister. Johnson graced the cover of the Atlantic magazine that month under the glowing headline, “Boris Johnson knows exactly what he’s doing”. At the time, Johnson held a 17-point lead over Keir Starmer – whose approval ratings had slumped to 25 per cent – as the nation’s preferred PM. Johnson was eyeing a “decade in power”, reported the Times. Dominic Cummings’s campaign to unseat the Prime Minister seemed esoteric, if not unhinged.

This recent history, easily forgotten now, helps to explain why Johnson has a chance of surviving the current furore over his conduct during lockdown. Johnson’s approval ratings have since nosedived: it is he who is now approved of by only 24 per cent of voters, while Starmer’s approval rating has risen to 33 per cent. And the Tories’ 11-point summer poll lead has evaporated. Based on some polls, one in three Tory MPs would lose their seats at a general election. 

But are the Tories doing badly enough for them to ditch Johnson? The problem, for those who want the Prime Minister out, is that Johnson may have just enough scope to claim that the party could yet recover under his leadership. Most 2019 Tory voters who have ditched the party recently are apathetic; few have switched to Labour. And Starmer’s newly acquired lead over Johnson as preferred PM is only marginal, despite the torrent of national outrage directed at the Prime Minister.

The prospect of a no-confidence vote in Johnson remains alive, but the likelihood of Johnson losing the support of 180 Tory MPs (50 per cent) seems distant. One rebel Tory, worn down by the toxicity of Westminster, told me they had relocated to their constituency for a few weeks. Another noted party plotter was reluctant to talk and appeared unwilling to agitate against Johnson. Both feel let down by the Prime Minister – as a third MP put it to me this week, “MPs are deeply disappointed that there wasn’t a higher degree of political competence” – but neither is part of a groundswell of rebellion against him.

The problem with anger is that it dissipates. It cools into discontent and disillusionment, of which there is now plenty in the party. Rebellions demand savagery, but that seems to be lacking in the party’s ranks for now amid the purgatorial wait for Sue Gray’s report.

For all the talk of Tory MPs deposing their leaders, the last Conservative chief to be felled in a confidence vote – Iain Duncan Smith in 2003 – was felled in opposition. Defenestrating a sitting prime minister, given all the patronage a PM can dangle in front of wavering MPs, is a far taller order. (Theresa May would, admittedly, have likely lost a second confidence vote in 2019 had she not resigned that summer.)

But even if Johnson does survive the next few months, we may have already reached the effective end of his premiership. “The very best he can hope for,” a former Tory cabinet minister told me recently, “is that he staggers on, a bit like Gordon Brown [and May], with his authority much diminished and Sunday newspaper stories every fortnight about this or that cabinet minister launching a coup or resigning.” The pressure on Johnson is unlikely to relent, with the UK heading into a cost-of-living crisis and the Tories set to lose control of totemic London councils such as Westminster and Wandsworth in May’s local elections. 

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As long as MPs remain cautious, Johnson will hobble on. “I don’t go around assassinating sitting prime ministers,” said one Tory who didn’t vote for Johnson in 2019, and might be expected to think little of his recent conduct. “Two weeks ago my constituents were in uproar, as I was,” they told me, singling out the Downing Street parties on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral. “That’s the one that’s made people absolutely mad with anger.”

Fortunately for Johnson, however, the MP thought “people are becoming anaesthetised” to “partygate”. That may change yet again if fresh evidence is leaked of the Prime Minister’s wrongdoing. “If I was Cummings,” said the MP, “I’d wait for the Gray report and Boris’s statement, and then the next day issue a photograph” of Johnson at a party – if Cummings has one. “Photos of Johnson in the flat having parties will stoke it all up again,” said the MP. “This is definitely Johnson’s last chance.”

[See also: The public has already made up its mind about Boris Johnson]

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