Insiders say a second no-confidence vote among MPs would now produce a very different result from the first
A week ago ministerial allies of Boris Johnson were insisting that losses in the Tiverton and Wakefield by-elections were already “priced in”. The results would not matter, they insisted, because no one expected them to win. It did not quite work out that way.
Less than two hours after the scale of the disastrous defeats became apparent, one of Boris Johnson’s most publicly loyal allies, party chairman Oliver Dowden, quit. Shortly afterwards, former Conservative leader Michael Howard became the latest senior Tory to call on the prime minister to resign. And yet still Mr Johnson limps on.
Some in the cabinet privately concede that the results mark a shift in the saga which has engulfed the government since Partygate first broke last November. Although no one followed Mr Dowden out the door, cabinet ministers were noticeably quiet or circumspect in their public support for their leader. Within the cabinet, however, there is a feeling that even those keen to replace Mr Johnson will not hasten his exit with their resignation, for fear of being seen to wield the knife.
Even for a party with such a distinguished history of political patricide as the Tories, the question of how to get rid of the prime minister is not an easy one. Behind the scenes, however, Tory rebels are becomingly increasingly exasperated with the cabinet’s unwillingness to act.
In bad news for the likes of foreign secretary Liz Truss, currently in Rwanda with the prime minister, or Rishi Sunak, whose friends believe he can still mount a leadership bid despite revelations his wife was a non-dom, there is growing resentment against cabinet ministers. One leading rebel said: “The next leader of the Conservative Party needs integrity, courage and to show leadership. That rules out all of the current cabinet.”
The attention of many is now focused on securing a change in the rules of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs instead. As these stand, they give Mr Johnson another year before he again faces a confidence vote.
There is evidence a second vote could produce a very different result. One former convinced loyalist, with a very large majority, told The Independent he had voted for Mr Johnson two weeks ago but would not do so again.
But many rebels believe Tory MPs will not have to cast their ballots for a second time in order to oust their leader. Just the prospect of another confidence vote, triggered by reform of the rules, could be enough to bring Boris Johnson’s political career to a close, they argue.
Concentrating minds are the messages they are receiving from their own constituencies. “Tories love winning more than anything,” said the head of a local Conservative association in southwest England. “That’s why we loved Boris.” Their use of the past tense was no accident, they added.