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Boris Johnson is in real trouble

The strength of feeling against the Prime Minister has steadily worsened as wavering Tory rebels have finally acted.

By Harry Lambert

Boris Johnson is in real trouble. “He won’t survive for long,” a senior Tory and public rebel tells me, whatever happens in tonight’s vote of no confidence, which will be held between 6 and 8pm, with the result due around 8:45pm.

That MP thinks “a little less than 150” MPs will vote against Johnson. Another rebel suggests “comfortably over a third” will do so, which would mean at least 120 rebels (there are 359 Tory MPs). That range – between 120 and 150 rebels – is the range to watch out for, and anything in that realm would likely spell the beginning of the end for Johnson.

Why? Because a vote of that order would, proportionately, match the various no-confidence votes against John Major (in 1995), Theresa May (in 2018) and Margaret Thatcher (in 1990). If you rescale the size of the respective rebellions against each of those leaders to match the size of the Tory party today, 121 rebels tonight would match the size of the rebellion against Major, 133 would match the vote against May, and 147 would equal the putsch against Thatcher.

May and Thatcher were both forced to resign shortly thereafter – May announced her resignation within six months; Thatcher within 48 hours. Major clung on until the 1997 general election, an outcome no Tory MP can look back on creditably: the party lost 178 MPs of its 343 MPs.

The question tonight is not whether Johnson loses the vote outright – that would be surprising, if possible. The question is whether he can keep the rebellion below three figures. If he does, he may have a slim chance of surviving until the next general election (although the forces arrayed against him would be clearer than ever, and even a rebellion of 95, which No 10 would consider a triumph, would mean one in four Tory MPs wanted him out).

Few think the rebellion will be that contained. As I noted in a recent Morning Call, 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. It is much easier, in other words, to get (near) to 180 rebels than it was to get to 54 letter-writers. Having assigned a probability to every MP, I would conservatively estimate that around 120 MPs will vote against Johnson tonight, and I would not be surprised by anything between 120 and 140.

[See also: Boris Johnson is far from safe]

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To give you a sense of how you get to 120 rebels, take the MPs who voted for a candidate other than Johnson in the 2019 leadership contest. Twenty-two current Tory MPs voted for Sajid Javid, who offered nondescript support for the Prime Minister this morning on the Today programme. I expect 11 or 12 of these MPs to vote against Johnson (four of them have already come out against him).

Thirty-six MPs backed Jeremy Hunt, who has just announced that he will vote against Johnson tonight. I estimate 20 or 21 of these 36 will vote against Johnson (seven of whom are declared rebels). If that seems surprisingly few, it is because 13 of the 36 are in government; the self-preservation of that status makes them less likely to vote against Johnson. And I expect ten or 11 of the 24 MPs who backed Michael Gove to rebel tonight; six of them have already moved against the Prime Minister.

That adds up to 42 or 43 rebels out of the 82 MPs who are known to have elected one of those alternative candidates. If that proportion was replicated across the party, Johnson would be narrowly defeated tonight – but I would not expect that, as both the 2019 intake and the MPs who supported Johnson in 2019 are likely to be more loyal to him.

The Prime Minister cannot, however, rely on all of those who supported him in 2019. He has already publicly lost a trio of former backers – Will Wragg, Andrew Mitchell and Steve Baker – and others will also vote against him. He has lost Labour-facing MPs and Lib Dem-facing MPs, new MPs and old. He has lost MPs at risk of losing their seats and MPs safely enthroned in the shires. (Do not think Johnson has a year’s grace if he survives tonight, even though the current rules of the 1922 Committee suggest as much if he wins. In reality he will face another no-confidence vote, if another is required, as soon as a majority of MPs want one.)

The Tories are on course to lose one third of their seats at the next election. That – and the sense that his government has no way of changing that fact – has always been the enduring issue for Johnson. The peril he faced in February never passed; the anger against him inside the party was only in abeyance. The strength of feeling has, indeed, only steadily worsened, as rebels who long wavered have acted at last. Expect many more to act in the secret ballot tonight.

[See also: The Conservatives are doomed whether or not Boris Johnson survives]

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