What do today’s local election results mean for the stalled rebellion against Boris Johnson within his own party? “The milk is simmering on the stove,” a leading rebel tells me. It is not boiling after today’s results, they say, “but the temperature is rising”.
Stop me if you have heard this script before. When, Harry, when? When will the Tory rebels move? This morning I asked three rebel MPs to interpret the results, and the prospects of a vote of no-confidence in Johnson this summer. The rebels remain as unsure as they have been for some time. The facts remain the same: I am told that many MPs are holding off submitting no-confidence letters to the 1922 Committee (54 are required), and have also advised wavering colleagues to do the same, as it is “all about” precipitating a vote “at the right moment”. “It will be sudden when it happens,” I am assured.
But will a vote ever take place? “Weak people,” says another rebel, “will always find an excuse to do nothing.” But both MPs think today’s results will galvanise Tory MPs in seats across southern England, especially those in London and in Lib Dem-facing seats in the south-west and elsewhere. “It’s a case of individuals [gradually] reaching the end of their tether,” as one of them puts it – but these results are unlikely to be seen as dire enough to precipitate a wave of calls for Johnson to go (or, more importantly, a wave of letters).
In part, today’s losses are softened for No 10 by the weak showing for Labour across certain parts of England, not least in the north and parts of the so-called Red Wall. “We didn’t do well enough,” a longstanding Blairite Labour MP tells me. Or, as a third Tory rebel put it, speaking from their count this morning, the results show there is “no appetite for Starmer up here”.
Where, then, are we headed? That seems harder to predict than ever, after the news that Keir Starmer is to be investigated by Durham police over a possible breach of lockdown rules (a subject he struggled to handle on air earlier this week). British politics at present is now defined by the weakness of our leaders, not by their strength. Johnson, Starmer and Rishi Sunak have all lost the lustre they once had in the public’s eyes.
Johnson, the weakest of the lot, faces further hurdles: the Sue Gray report, as ever, lies ahead. “I can’t tell you which hurdle he will fall at,” one of the rebels tells me, “but with Boris, something always comes up.” After today’s poor, if not disastrous, results, Johnson now faces three by-elections in Tory-held seats. Moving the writs (the formal parliamentary process for triggering by-elections) for two of these seats – Wakefield, and Tiverton and Honiton – is likely to take place this week, but may not happen until late June. If the rebels wait to move until after those results, they will then have only a handful of weeks left to hold a vote against Johnson before the long summer recess.