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10 February 2022

The leaderless plot: why no one knows when Boris Johnson will fall

That no single Tory MP or section of the Conservative Party is spearheading the coup against Boris Johnson is both a strength and a weakness.

By Harry Lambert

In the long run, a Tory strategist tells me, Boris Johnson “is a goner, and won’t fight the next election”. But in the short run his defenestration “depends on the news flow” and no one knows how and when news will break. Newly damaging stories may or may not swing wavering MPs at any time.

Dominic Cummings, for one, has implied that there are more damaging pictures to come of Johnson at No 10 parties (after the Daily Mirror released one image of Johnson yesterday), and has promised further news on the funding of Johnson’s Downing Street flat, after the apparent whitewashing of Lord Geidt’s recent “investigation”.

No one, says the strategist, knows “what’s sitting on Dom’s Google Drive”. They compare Cummings’ periodic attacks on Johnson to those of a border reiver “swooping down from the hills and butchering the population”.

Westminster waits on news. While it waits, and as it heads into a ten-day recess, it is difficult to gauge when Johnson might face a no-confidence vote for a simple reason: no Tory MP, or section of the party, is leading this coup against the Prime Minister. It is a leaderless plot. No Tory MP can easily lead a campaign against Johnson over the issue of his character (or lack of it) without claiming a moral authority that few MPs are seen to have.

Any coup leader is also likely to be seen as a rival leadership candidate, but the MPs who want to succeed Johnson are all, at present, too cautious to state their ambitions so clearly. None of them want to alienate Johnson’s supporters in any future contest, although an outsider may eventually break cover in a bid for relevance.

The campaign to unseat Theresa May, in contrast, was waged over an issue of policy and thus had obvious leaders. UK withdrawal from the EU was the reason that certain Tory MPs had entered parliament. Getting Brexit right was the cause of their career. That also made the number of rebels far easier to count: past public statements, or membership of party groupings, gave a strong indication of who might oppose May.

The bid to fell Johnson is different. There is no party grouping for “Tory MPs who think integrity matters”. That makes the campaign to unseat the Prime Minister both more and less powerful than the attempts to unseat not just May but Tony Blair (led by identifiably impatient Brownites) and Gordon Brown (led by identifiably jaded Blairites).

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Without a centralised and identifiable hub of MPs working to persuade others to come out against Johnson, every Tory is weighing Johnson in the balance alone, and many may never reveal whether they sent a letter of no confidence to Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers, or indeed voted against Johnson if there is a no-confidence vote. The mooted spreadsheet of loyal and disloyal MPs being compiled by Johnson’s team is of limited use: the 100 or so MPs on the government’s payroll will all have declared their loyalty to the Prime Minister for now, but some among them (and perhaps many) may secretly vote against Johnson in the end.

Equally, MPs who have made public statements in letters to constituents that hint at their fading confidence in Johnson may stay their hand. No rebel MP can accurately tell you how many others feel as they do, or rather how many will actually act on their evident anger with No 10. 

At times it seems even the rebellious MPs themselves are unsure of their intentions. David Davis only decided that he would call for Johnson to go while on his morning walk to PMQs three weeks ago, while Tobias Ellwood, a select committee chairman of some moral standing, chose to withdraw his support from Johnson almost incidentally at the end of a television interview last week, rather than in a set-piece speech on the floor of the House.

For now, most Tory MPs continue to wait on, or hide behind, the Sue Gray report into Downing Street lockdown parties. After the police investigation concludes and Gray’s report is released in full — as Johnson committed to doing on the floor of the House yesterday, after equivocating last week — they will no longer be able to duck their moment of decision. 

At that point they will either have to withdraw their confidence in Johnson or continue to back him and own the consequences of doing so. Tory MPs cannot kick the can down the road forever. There is “no good reason” to get rid of Johnson, suggests the Tory strategist, “other than that the public now detest him and will soon start to detest the Tory party”.

A prominent MP agrees. Johnson’s unpopularity, they point out, has now dragged down the Tories’ poll leads over Labour on many major issues of policy. A failing of character is corroding the party’s long-burnished, if undeserved, reputation for competence.

But could the Prime Minister delay the moment of decision indefinitely, by forever finding ways of delaying the full publication of Gray’s inquiry? That seems unlikely because Johnson cannot, in effect, do anything that a majority of Tory MPs oppose, and a clear majority of MPs appear to want the report to be published in full.

No 10 has in recent days tried to push the line that if Johnson does not get a fixed penalty notice from the police over the parties, he will have been cleared and can continue in office. A Tory MP is bemused by the idea. “Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I don’t think not being a criminal is a sufficiently high character bar for the prime minister.”

One long-time Tory observer suggests that the party’s current ordeal is the aftershock of a historic deal “made with the devil”; a deal that delivered Brexit and ensured the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn, but one that had a price which is now being paid.

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