There are two reasons Boris Johnson remains Prime Minister. First, there is no heir apparent under whom Tory MPs are confident their political lives would be more fruitful. Second, many believe the party will still win the next general election under Johnson’s leadership. Each of these views has strengthened in Johnson’s favour over the past two months. Rishi Sunak’s popularity has collapsed, both within the party and the country. And the Tories have arrested their slide in the opinion polls, with Labour failing to soak up much of the support that its opponents have lost.
After slumping to 31 per cent in January, support for the Tories is back up to around 35 per cent, with Labour usually below 40 per cent rather than above it. On current predictions, Keir Starmer’s party would fall some way short of a parliamentary majority at the next election; any Labour government would be reliant on SNP support and the prospect of that may well dampen support for the party, as it did in 2015. Starmer has not solved that problem, and – as a senior shadow cabinet minister recently put it to me – the opposition still hasn’t “given voters a reason to vote for us”. Labour is up because the Tories are down, rather than on its own merits.
Conservative MPs who thought Johnson should go in February are now rueful and resigned. “It is what it is,” said one, “I can’t really work it out.” Fundamentally, they say, Tory MPs fear the broad range of alternative leaders. “There are a lot of people who think, ‘f***ing hell, could you imagine how bad it’d be if Liz [Truss] won?’”
As the New Statesman and others have reported, the momentum to oust Johnson has evaporated since the start of the war in Ukraine. As another MP put it to me earlier this week, “the world would probably be in a different place without the invasion of Ukraine. You can’t escape from that.” But there are other reasons for Johnson’s improved standing, such as the party’s renewed whips team. I am told that, rather than the chaotic operation in Downing Street, was the primary source of Tory discontent until recently.
“No 10 was never the big problem. Everybody got this wrong,” said a rising MP in the party. “The [failing] No 10 operation was an extension of the PM’s weaknesses, and that’s never going to change. The issue was not that we didn’t have enough policies. What difference is Steve Barclay [Johnson’s new chief of staff] going to make to government? Ultimately we don’t have a strategy, we’re not governing,” they say. “That’s all deckchairs on the Titanic. The whips operation is the key thing. You cannot overstate how big a difference having a whips operation that functions properly has been to MPs feeling part of the team.”
But there are also bigger questions at play this week than the survival of one prime minister. The UK’s unwritten constitutional principles, and its standards of public life, are also being tested. As a veteran Tory MP put it, the question is “whether the UK is happy to walk through the looking glass in the same way that the US did. I don’t know, maybe this is politics now: things just don’t matter anymore. You just brazen it out.
“Maybe that’s what the public expects now, and in two years’ time when there’s a general election voters will just shrug their shoulders at Boris’s personal failings and say he’s made a good job of a bad hand, and the economy’s looking pretty ropey – do we trust Labour with it?” History suggests, the MP added, that when people are at their most financially stressed they are least likely to vote Labour. “I still think the Conservatives will win the next election.”
Nevertheless, a hundred MPs – between a quarter and a third of the party – are set to lose their seats at the next election. As long as that remains the case, there will be an insecurity to Johnson’s position. Momentum may build against him once again if he faces a rolling series of police fines over the coming weeks. “We have a weak Chancellor and a weak Prime Minister,” an MP concluded, “but ultimately prime ministers are never that weak because they are still prime minister”, with all the powers of patronage and initiative that affords.