A week ago it seemed as if Boris Johnson may just cling on. A no-confidence vote “remained alive”, as I put it then, but the prospect of 180 Conservative MPs turning against the PM seemed distant. Much has changed in that short time. This week Johnson publicly lost the support of five MPs, all of them in relatively safe seats and none of them natural rebels.
Johnson is shedding support everywhere. Yesterday his most trusted and longest-serving aide — Munira Mirza, his policy chief since he entered office in 2019 and an aide of his since the 2000s — left No 10 in explosive fashion. Mirza chose to publicly excoriate her long-time boss for his attempt to blame Keir Starmer for Jimmy Savile not being prosecuted. She could have chosen to go silently.
In the 24 hours since, Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid have both distanced themselves from the Prime Minister’s Savile remarks. And even the Daily Mail, Johnson’s last refuge in the press, has turned on him. A week ago the paper was calling for the nation to recover its “sense of proportion” and decrying the overreaction to Partygate. Today it gleefully splashed on the “meltdown in Downing Street”.
A rebel Tory MP tells me a no-confidence vote is now “just a question of time”. Another MP, who has not come out against the PM but wants him gone, agrees: “I don’t see how you don’t get there very soon. You’re getting to the point where once this many MPs have declared [against Johnson, as 12 now have], everything becomes unsustainable. How do you whip? How do you do policy?”
Johnson is trying to answer that question by turning Mirza’s departure into an opportunity. He has appointed a Tory MP, Andrew Griffith, as her successor and is setting up backbench policy boards to feed ideas into No 10, but the MP suggests such committees are “not going to stop people thinking this is a complete shit show”.
Both MPs are convinced that a no-confidence vote is imminent because no one they speak to in the party thinks the situation can possibly improve under Johnson, who remains under active investigation by the police and cannot escape the eventual publication of Sue Gray’s full report on the parties.
“What is happening right now is a consequence of the PM’s inability to listen, and his poor judgement of people,” says one MP, citing Mirza’s departure. Why, they ask, did the PM not give way over Savile to prevent her from walking? “Munira was one of the few very able people who actually supports him. If someone like that, at a time like this, says ‘you’ve got to go and do x’, you do it — you do it for them.”
Most intriguingly, one rising MP increasingly thinks that Boris would lose a no-confidence vote. The act of voting against Johnson in a secret ballot is, they suggest, “completely different” to the pressure of handing in a letter, which is a rebellious act. Sunak, for example, is far more likely to vote against Johnson in a ballot than he is to submit a letter.
Johnson may also be harming his chances of surviving a no-confidence vote by delaying it. The longer the party waits to vote on him, the more likely it will be that the question before Tory MPs is whether they want to fight the next election under Johnson — a framing that is unlikely to favour the PM given the collapse in both his and the party’s poll ratings.
But why, in that case, has a vote not yet happened? The problem, as multiple sources put it to me, is that key figures in the party believe they have plenty of time (another election does not have to be held until December 2024) and many are reluctant to move first. “The non hot-heads do not feel the need to be hot-headed,” says a Tory who is close to key MPs in the party. One MP likens it to a prisoner’s dilemma: “It benefits everybody for Johnson to go, but the potential downside for you is high if it [a revolt] doesn’t go quite right.”
For now, the only MP who could probably precipitate a full-scale putsch against Johnson — Sunak — is reluctant to move. “The Chancellor has been successful in life,” says an observer, “because he’s very smart and very strict: he plays what’s in front of him.” Moving against Johnson is a risk to which he is not accustomed, and he will not want to lose the future support of MPs who are sticking by the prime minister today.
The drumbeat towards a confidence vote continues. Johnson has lost much of his No 10 team and almost all of his press supporters. He may also have lost his party. We should soon find out.