Life moves fast. On Monday, 148 Tory MPs tried to unseat the Prime Minister. When the same proportion of MPs voted against Margaret Thatcher in a leadership challenge in 1990, she had announced her resignation within 48 hours. But this morning, 84 hours after the result, you would have little idea any such vote took place from a glance at the papers. Boris Johnson, who has historically started his daily morning meeting in No 10 by reviewing the papers with his senior staff, will be pleased; he appears to have escaped yet again.
Instead, the Telegraph, Guardian, Mirror, Indy, Metro and Daily Mail all lead on the searing news that two British men – Aiden Aslin, 28, and Shaun Pinner, 48 – have been sentenced to death by a Russian separatist court for serving as mercenaries in Ukraine. Both men have lived in Ukraine since 2018, and joined the country’s fight for survival after the Russian invasion in February. It is right that the critical war in Ukraine returns to the frontpages, and the fate of Aslin and Pinner captures the sacrifices some make so that others may live.
But it is also striking that no rebellious momentum has built against Johnson since Monday’s vote. Johnson is the first prime minister to try and survive so damning a verdict among his own MPs – a fact that ambitious rebels could have sought to point out publicly this week. Neville Chamberlain felt compelled to resign after 101 of his MPs failed to vote for him after the Norway debate in 1940. For every four MPs who abandoned Chamberlain, six opposed Johnson on Monday.
No government minister has resigned, despite 10 or 11 (out of 79) being suspected of voting against Johnson; and nor have any of Johnson’s leadership rivals outside of cabinet – from Jeremy Hunt to Tom Tugendhat – sought to seize the narrative. Even Keir Starmer, in PMQs on Wednesday, avoided attacking Johnson for his insistence on staying in No 10. Starmer was, to the bewilderment of many watching inside the chamber, happy to act as if the confidence vote had never happened.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that the bid to oust Johnson is dead, or that the Prime Minister is now safe for year. It is “possible”, as the chairman of the 1922 committee said yesterday, that the Tory party’s rules will be changed to allow a second no confidence vote later this year (I took a look at why I think it is not only possible but probable yesterday).
The rebels have retreated for now – “I’m exhausted,” one tells me – but they are sure to return. While Johnson limps on, perhaps as an increasingly lame duck prime minister, his leadership rivals within the cabinet are likely to grow in confidence and stature. By the autumn, a few among them may, at last, be ready to rebel themselves.