Boris Johnson thinks he is safe in office for at least a year: that much is clear from his last-minute decision on Friday (17 June) to blow off Tory MPs – whose continued support he needs to survive – and head to Kyiv to see his “friend”, the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.
MPs were expecting Johnson to appear on Friday at a conference organised by the party’s Northern Research Group, and to campaign in Wakefield. Instead, the Prime Minister sought to seize international headlines on the day that the European Commission announced the granting of EU candidate status to Ukraine.
Having survived a confidence vote and promised to bring wavering MPs into the fold, Johnson is, like a fearsome but absent father, seeking to show strength by reverting to disregarding his backbenchers.
Those who oppose him, who have never formed a coherent opposition, have retreated and are now regrouping. They accept that Johnson is safe for the summer, with one thoughtful MP suggesting to me this week that “his survival for another year has to be your base case”.
The rebels’ focus is trained on the potential findings of the Privileges Committee – due to report on Johnson’s parliamentary conduct over partygate in September – and on the momentum that could build against Johnson at the Tory conference, being held in October.
That is the next window of pressure that Johnson is likely to face. It could be the moment the 1922 Committee moves to change the rules that currently prevent another no-confidence vote against Johnson this year. As the New Statesman has reported, changing those rules is not difficult in any practical sense – it can happen on any given afternoon – but there is an open question as to how great the opposition to Johnson now needs to be for the 1922 to do so.
The bar for another confidence vote has certainly been raised. Only 15 per cent of Tory MPs needed to call for one before. But it’s now thought that at least 50 per cent will need to want one for a rule change to be contemplated (41 per cent voted against Johnson on 6 June). And some MPs think the level of opposition required for another vote is now significantly higher than that.
“The pressure would have to be overwhelming,” says one. “Things would have to get very, very bad. In 2019, we had pretty bad locals and ministerial resignations all over the place for weeks.” It was only after the European elections, they note – when the Tories polled in single digits – that the 1922 moved against Theresa May.
Another MP, a rebel, agrees that more than 50 per cent of the parliamentary party are thought to be needed to oppose Johnson for a rule change to happen – perhaps as high as 60 or 65 per cent – although they think that could happen quickly “if the Privileges Committee finds something that materially changes the state of play”.
But others are less convinced Johnson is secure until, say, as many as two thirds of his MPs oppose him. They think that local Tory party associations hold the key to the next confidence vote. Once party chairpersons and activists start demanding Johnson’s removal – which they think is already happening – MPs will feel renewed pressure to act.
The problem for the Tory party, as one veteran MP put it this week, is that both sides were emboldened by the confidence vote. “They are really bad numbers [for us],” they tell me, because the government and the rebels now both think “they have a chance of finding a winning hand”. Neither side rates or fears Labour under Keir Starmer. And both No 10 and Tory leadership hopefuls think they have plenty of time to turn the party around ahead of the next election.
Both Johnson and John Major, one MP says, have shown that you can reinvent a party in government, and that when you get it right, you can win the next election. As another MP puts it, “We’ve still got ages after next year’s locals – an election could be 18 months away [then].”
There is time to topple Johnson yet. But one rebel was, nevertheless, wistful at what might have been this month. “I do wonder what would have happened if 20 of us had got together and said ‘let’s pull our letters until the by-elections’. That was discussed, but we thought it better to go [last week].” Two weeks, they note, is a long time politically. Anything could have happened. A second MP agrees: “The lesson the rebels learned from January/February,” they say, “is that if you think you’ve got momentum, you’ve got to go. Momentum is the most important quality in politics.”