The campaign to remove Boris Johnson as Prime Minister is gaining momentum. Three more MPs (Elliot Colburn, Jeremy Wright and Andrew Bridgen) called for Johnson to resign yesterday and the prospect of reaching the necessary 54 letters of no-confidence to trigger a vote looks ever more likely. That brings the total number of MPs calling for Johnson to go to 27, and another 12 have publicly criticised him.
We are at the strange stage of having to decide whether open criticisms of the prime minister constitute calls for him to go. Discontent in the Tory ranks ranges from published letters of no-confidence in the PM served with a damning speech in the Commons (a la Mark Harper), to a declaration that, if they were in the PM’s position, they would put themselves forward for a vote of confidence (a la Nickie Aiken). (On that, one senior MP familiar with the ins and outs of party rules tells me Johnson can’t force a vote of confidence “unless he asks people to write letters”, which seems unlikely in the current circumstances.)
Why is this happening now? As another leading rebel pointed out to me last week, MPs can no longer say to their constituents they are waiting for the publication of the Sue Gray partygate report before coming to a decision. When they returned to their constituencies for recess this week, they will have had to justify their support for the Prime Minister to their local radio stations and newspapers. Indeed, the silence that followed the publication of the Sue Gray report has been swiftly broken by 12 more MPs calling for Johnson to resign.
If the magic number of 54 is reached, the Prime Minister would face a vote of confidence, as Theresa May did in December 2018. Johnson would need 180 votes to survive in the anonymous ballot of Tory MPs. Would he win? Perhaps not: while 180 is a far higher threshold than 54 a vote of confidence would force MPs to decide whether they supported the Prime Minister – members of the government included. It’s a point Harry made well last week: “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.”
Johnson may well win the vote, but even then his authority would be shot. Over 60 per cent of Tory MPs said they had confidence in May and yet she was out six months later. While Johnson will never resign willingly this process will continue to corrode his premiership. Questions over further parties in the Downing Street flat and the looming privileges committee investigation mean this isn’t going away. Even if a vote of confidence doesn’t happen next week (it seems unlikely that Graham Brady, the chairman of the backbench committee to whom letters are sent, will announce a vote this week; “don’t want to spoil jubilee weekend eh,” an MP texts in) then losses in the two by-elections on 23 June could be the catalyst for wavering MPs to turn against Johnson. Yes, we’ve heard this all before, but momentum is building.