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19 January 2022

Why Tory MPs have given Boris Johnson a stay of execution

The uncomfortable spectacle of Labour profiting from Conservative divisions has persuaded many MPs to hold fire.

By Ailbhe Rea

At 8am this morning, it was far from certain that Boris Johnson would survive the day as Prime Minister. Ten 2019 intake Tory MPs submitted their letters to Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 committee, after a night of plotting at the Carlton Club. It seemed distinctly likely that the threshold of 54 letters needed to trigger a confidence vote in Johnson would be reached by nightfall if not by lunchtime.

But if the political day began with a bang, it ends with something of a whimper. And strangely enough, Johnson seems to have been saved – at least temporarily – by something that would ordinarily spell disaster for a sitting Prime Minister. Christian Wakeford, the MP for Bury South, crossed the floor and defected from the Tories to Labour within minutes of Prime Minister’s Questions and the mood subtly changed on the Conservative benches. They were notably more vocal than last week, cheering on the Prime Minister in the face of the humiliating spectacle of one of his own “Red Wall” MPs handing Keir Starmer an easy attack line. 

“Christian’s defection has changed things for now,” one former cabinet minister says. The consensus behind the scenes is that Johnson won’t lead the Conservatives into the next general election but they are divided on when he should go. The uncomfortable spectacle of Labour profiting from Tory divisions persuaded many of them to hold fire.

Despite the dramatic spectacle of David Davis calling on Johnson to resign to his face at PMQs, Westminster is quiet again, for now. Many Conservative MPs have returned to their constituencies and the 1922 Committee meeting was poorly attended this evening, with Alok Sharma addressing only a few dozen MPs who bothered to turn up. 

“It takes a lot longer to oust a Conservative leader than people think,” says one senior Tory. “It took a long time with Theresa, it will take a long time with Boris.” The priority for the whips is to prolong the period of time before reaching the 54-letter threshold for as long as possible.

But it doesn’t mean that Johnson is safe. The anger is still palpable among Conservative MPs and it remains a question of when, not if, he will have to go. “I don’t need a fucking report to tell me whether someone who made the rules went to a party,” is how one enraged Conservative MP puts it. Wakeford’s defection and Sue Gray’s report have bought Johnson some time, but many of those who are waiting for the latter already have a good idea of how they will respond when it drops. And it doesn’t look promising for Boris Johnson.

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