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1 February 2022

Boris Johnson’s toxicity has an upside – it damages his potential successors

As the partygate scandal deepens, Rishi Sunak is seeing his approval ratings slide.

By Stephen Bush

Crisis over? That’s the story that large numbers of Conservative MPs are telling themselves, anyway. Some of the named plotters – like Birmingham Northfield’s MP Gary Sambrook – have publicly recanted their calls for him to go.

Most MPs privately think that Boris Johnson’s response to Sue Gray’s update – in which he repeated unfounded conspiracy theories about Keir Starmer – lacked both class and political nous. But the reality is that not much as changed: because the number of angry letters from constituents has declined, because Conservative MPs aren’t yet sold on any of the available candidates, Boris Johnson survives now.

The gamble that Tory MPs are taking, though, is that persisting on their current course won’t cause damage to the whole enterprise. Andrew Mitchell, one of several Conservative MPs to make a critical intervention in the Commons yesterday, this morning compared the Prime Minister to “battery acid”: and that’s probably a pretty good way of thinking about the Conservative party’s Johnson problem.

The Prime Minister is corrosive. His unpopularity is surely one reason why Rishi Sunak, the party’s most popular politician and biggest political asset at the moment, is seeing his approval ratings slide. Yes, the pressures on the cost of living and the Channel crossings are part of the picture, too: but given Labour leads not only in voting intention but on tackling various ‘issues’ from crime to the NHS to the economy, clearly something bigger is going on than just the wear and tear of events.

His continued presence makes it harder to see how any of his would-be successors could turn things around: and the longer the Prime Minister survives, the better his chances of leading his party into the next election, for no other reason than every day weakens and diminishes the alternatives to him a little bit further.

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