Johnson's baddie power

With the Tories' poll ratings still on the slide, one would expect David Cameron to have bigger things on his mind than amending the Conservative Party's constitution.

But in a sign that he has one eye on the future, Cameron has ordered the party's powerful backbench 1922 Committee to change their rules to make it harder to remove a sitting leader.

The reason for Cameron's intervention can be summed up in two words: Boris Johnson. The London mayor is known to want to return to Westminster and, in the words of his former deputy mayor Ian Clement, he believes he has a "divine right" to run the country.

Cameron fears that Johnson, who has delighted Conservative activists by speaking out on issues such as the 50p tax rate, could make a successful stab at the leadership if he becomes unpopular with the voters.

Under the current rules, a leadership contest is triggered when 15 per cent of the party's MPs submit a request for one. Once lodged, a request cannot be rescinded, so the number can gradually rise over a period of years. Cameron is expected to change this rule by putting an "expiry date" on letters. Rebel MPs would have to write again after a certain period.

History suggests that the Tory leader is right to act now. Labour is sentimental towards failing leaders, but the Tories habitually act with Darwinian ruthlessness to remove those who have fallen out of favour. It would be naive of Cameron to expect to be an exception.

George Eaton is senior online editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Dave Ultimatum