“The spell has broken,” a Tory strategist told me a few weeks ago in reference to Boris Johnson’s hold over the Conservative Party. Shortly thereafter, five back-bench Tory MPs – none of them natural rebels – publicly called for Johnson to go within days of each other. Johnson appeared unable to stem the calls for his resignation, or the trickle of damning revelations: the Daily Mirror reported that it had seen a picture of Johnson holding a beer at a No 10 party. The publication of the photos and others like it seemed imminent.
But no such pictures have been published, and No 10 has asked the police to refrain from releasing any as part of its investigation. Sue Gray’s inquiry is also reportedly unlikely to include any of the extensive visual evidence that she has collected. After a week-long recess, and with all attention now turned to a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine, the campaign to oust Johnson has lost momentum. The calls from Conservative MPs for Johnson to step down have dried up, and the shock resignation of Johnson’s most loyal No 10 aide, Munira Mirza, on 3 February feels distant.
A key Tory MP – a member of the government who is one day sure to feature prominently atop it – this week highlighted to me two reasons why he thinks Johnson will remain in post for now. First, there is no obvious alternative to Johnson, as we have noted before. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the possibility remains that Johnson could recover from the collapse in his approval ratings precipitated by partygate. The Tories will continue to bear with him until his current unpopularity proves to be genuinely permanent, the MP suggested.
The reality is that the Johnson spell has not, in fact, quite broken for many Tory MPs. Talking to them sometimes feels like canvassing the cast of Succession ahead of its latest uncertain attempt to defenestrate Logan Roy. Many appear to be trapped by inertia, unwilling to commit to unproved rivals and come out against the fading king.
Those who want to remove Johnson have to persuade the many Tom Wambsgans among their ranks – they have watched Johnson’s rivals fall flat for years and never yet seen Johnson defeated for good. Michael Gove once wielded the knife against Johnson; now he is among the Prime Minister’s most loyal defenders, in public and in private.
Another problem, as I detailed last week, is that this is a leaderless coup. Johnson’s rivals are not just unproven but unannounced. I spoke with one would-be contender this week whose thoughts were not even on Johnson’s fall and how it might be brought about.
This speaks to a broader issue that is staying the hand of all Johnson’s potential successors: the Prime Minister’s relative popularity with the Tory party membership. An Opinium poll of members a month ago (the most recent we have) showed that 63 per cent of them thought that Johnson should stay in post despite partygate, with only 25 per cent convinced he should go.
A Tory grandee I spoke to believes that any would-be contender is wary of moving against the Prime Minister for fear of alienating those members – the electorate that will ultimately choose Britain’s next prime minister if Johnson is forced out before the next general election.
But James Johnson, of the polling firm JL Partners, which polled for Theresa May when she was in No 10, is unconvinced by this theory. “I’m not sure that’s quite right. When members answer these surveys, they tend to be thinking about loyalty: many of these members will have voted for him,” he told me. He suspected that a contender who moved against Johnson would only briefly endure blowback.
Tory members may be alienated “if you polled them the day after”, James Johnson suggested, “but I think they would move on pretty quickly. They are loyal to Johnson because he’s the Tory leader and the Prime Minister, but I think those numbers are soft, and if he was fined [by the police], those numbers would change quite quickly.”
Here is the solace for opponents of Johnson. In the long run, many observers still suspect that the PM is in trouble. The Tory grandee, a key player in Tory politics over the past decade, believes that Johnson’s personal polling “is not going to recover”. Meanwhile, James Johnson cautioned against overreacting to the calm of the past week: “I think, fundamentally, the mood hasn’t changed. It’s always been about the release of the full Gray report, and we’re still waiting for that. I’m not sure the day of reckoning has gone away.”
The conflict in Ukraine may help Johnson quell further rebellions in the coming days, but there is, notes the Tory grandee, “always an excuse for why now is a bad time” to remove a prime minister. Johnson would not be the first British leader to attempt to use a foreign invasion as a pretext for staying in office. On 10 May 1940, Neville Chamberlain tried to cling on to No 10 at the 11th hour – having already conceded that he must resign – when Hitler invaded the Low Countries that morning. (Labour’s refusal to join a national government led by him ensured that he could not.)
In any case, Tory rebels could argue that Johnson’s uncertain future means he cannot focus on the conflict. Johnson is damned in the eyes of some Tory MPs for his failure to tackle London’s role as a “laundromat” for Russian money, and for his proximity to certain prominent Russians in London. The Ukraine conflict only helps Johnson in so far as rival MPs fail to make it part of their argument for why he must go.
Very little that happens each week in politics does much to move the public opinion of political figures. But every now and again something does, as partygate has. Such blows, once absorbed, are very hard to recover from. But until Tory MPs are sure that their Prime Minister cannot rise again, both they and the country will continue to endure Johnson’s faltering leadership.