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Is the Tory revolt against Boris Johnson back on?

Following the publication of Sue Gray’s report, 27 MPs have now publicly questioned the Prime Minister’s leadership.

By Harry Lambert

Rishi Sunak has, at last, announced a sweeping series of measures to ease the cost-of-living crisis, especially for poorer households, while introducing a windfall tax “temporary and targeted” Energy Profits Levy to help cover the cost. There is much to say on that, but this morning it is impossible to escape the perennial political question of 2022: is the Tory rebellion to oust Boris Johnson back on? Because it increasingly feels like it might be.

In the past 48 hours, since I wrote to you ahead of the Sue Gray report, four Tory MPs have publicly called for Johnson to go (Julian Sturdy on Wednesday afternoon, John Baron and David Simmonds yesterday morning, Stephen Hammond six hours later), with two others (Angela Richardson and Philip Dunne) coming close to doing so in equivocal statements yesterday. Twenty-seven MPs have now publicly questioned Johnson’s leadership since Johnson was fined by police on 12 April.

We are, in an abstract sense, halfway to a no-confidence vote, which requires 54 MPs. But we do not know who has submitted a letter calling for a vote, and some rebels have been clear that they are biding their time. That may come after the upcoming by-elections on 23 June, when the Tories are set to lose seats in both the Red Wall to Labour (Imran Ahmad Khan’s former seat of Wakefield) and the Blue Wall to the Lib Dems (Neil Parish’s seat of Tiverton and Honiton). The downfall of those MPs could inadvertently imperil Johnson.

There will be four weeks until the summer recess after 23 June: plenty of time for a confidence vote. Once that vote is called – if it is – the rules of the game will suddenly change. Convincing a majority of Tory MPs (i.e. 180) to vote Johnson out may seem implausible given that 54 MPs are reluctant to submit a letter, but one is very different from the other. Submitting a letter is an act of regicide. Whereas once a vote is set, MPs will either vote for or against Johnson; they will have to actively support him rather than passively fail to get rid of him. The Conservative MP Robert Syms captured this in an interview yesterday. Syms said he is not willing to submit a letter “at this stage” but added: “Would I vote for him [Johnson] if there was a vote of no confidence? I think he would have do a lot of convincing for me to.”

Many silent critics – including the 95 MPs on the government’s payroll, who will currently be wary of submitting a letter – will suddenly find themselves able to vote against Johnson in a secret ballot. What would Rishi Sunak, or Liz Truss, do in that vote?

Yesterday I showed one Tory MP a list of 20 of their endangered colleagues in Labour-facing seats, all of whom have previously been critical of Johnson over partygate, to ask if they knew any of them to be rebels. “I know a number of those have letters in, but I am not expecting a statement from any of them”, they said. Another MP concurred. The quiet Tory reaction to the Sue Gray report in the Commons on Wednesday disguised a persistent fact: Johnson has many opponents in his own party. Only a few are publicly known. Others are agitating quietly. And many more may soon prove ready to act if a confidence vote is called.

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