Five key threats for Boris Johnson with Tory rebels on maneuvers

A parliamentary committee is now investigating whether Johnson deliberately misled MPs over the parties, an offense which would normally merit his resignation.
Image: Tolga Akmen/EPA/Bloomberg

Boris Johnson says it’s time to move on from “Partygate” and he won’t “spend a second more talking about that stuff.” But still the drip, drip, drip of party dissent continues to mount.

Twenty-eight Conservative Members of Parliament have explicitly said they think he should step down. Another 13 have publicly criticised him. If 54 submit formal letters calling on him to resign, Johnson, 57, will face a confidence vote among his party’s MPs.

While a long-awaited civil service report into illegal pandemic parties contained no smoking gun when it was finally published last week, the colorful tales of rule-breaking at No. 10 soured the mood among his MPs contemplating having to defend Johnson’s actions on the doorstep. With many of them already fed up with what they see as a string of unforced errors and U-turns that have embarassed them repeatedly, Johnson’s has effectively left piles of kindling lying around Westminster. One spark might be enough to send the whole thing up in flames.

Here are some of the dangers:

The party’s mood is dire

The Tory reaction to Partygate shows there is no collective view on Johnson among the party’s 359 MPs. His allies regard the scandal as contrived by the opposition, and talk of the prime minister getting the “big decisions” correct on the pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine. On the flip side, some regard Johnson as a disgrace.

It’s not just the parties either. Some Tories are angry at being asked to defend the government’s policies, only for the position to be reversed only hours later. Johnson’s botched attempt last year to save a Conservative MP — who was found to have broken ethics rules — continues to undermine him.

Splits on cost of living

Johnson’s response to the UK’s cost-of-living crisis offers a snapshot of how the prime minister has divided his party. A £15 billion ($19 billion) support package announced 24 hours after Gray’s report was seen by many as imperative to tackle the squeeze on living standards. Yet traditional pro-business Tories accused Johnson of abandoning party principles by imposing a windfall tax on oil and gas companies, jeopardizing the Conservatives’ claim to economic competence.

To make matters worse, the decision came days after Tory MPs had been ordered to publicly oppose the measure when it was put forward by the opposition Labour Party. The debate feeds into Tory criticism that it’s not clear what Johnson and his government stands for — he talks about being a fiscal conservative but raised taxes to their highest level in decades.

Voters get their say

The two parliamentary elections — both triggered by sex scandals involving the sitting Conservative MP — on June 23 loom large for Johnson. Opinion polls show the Tories at risk of handing the former “Labour red wall” seat of Wakefield, West Yorkshire back to the opposition party.

Meanwhile the traditional Tory “blue wall” seat of Tiverton and Honiton, southwest England is being strongly contested by the Liberal Democrats. Defeat there would bolster the view of MPs in similar seats that Johnson’s focus on the North is coming at the expense of traditional Conservative constituencies.

Losing both so soon after a local-election drubbing would undermine the view that Johnson is still the party’s best bet to fight the next general election, expected in 2024. The latest YouGov projections show Johnson losing his own seat in a crushing defeat to Labour.

Confidence votes can change things quickly

For now, the question is whether the rebels can muster enough support to trigger a confidence vote. But much can change between a vote being called and the ballots being cast.

If a heavyweight such as Chancellor Rishi Sunak or Foreign Secretary Liz Truss made clear they’d go for the top job the dynamic could change quickly. Winning the vote would — in theory — leave Johnson immune from another such contest for a year. But it’s no guarantee of safety: his predecessor, Theresa May, won a confidence vote in December 2018 yet was still out of Downing Street months later as the Tory party tore itself apart over Brexit.

…And partygate still rumbles on 

Johnson refused to quit even after became the first sitting prime minister found to have broken the law. So after Gray’s report turned up little that wasn’t already in the public domain, he was determined to move on.

But Gray didn’t investigate the so-called Abba party, for example, which allegedly took place in Johnson’s flat and included his wife and special advisers on the night the prime minister’s controversial aide Dominic Cummings left his job. On Monday, Johnson’s spokesman refused to deny there was another — as yet not investigated — party in the apartment on the premier’s birthday in 2020, hours after the event for which he was fined along with Sunak.

A parliamentary committee is now investigating whether Johnson deliberately misled MPs over the parties, an offense which would normally merit his resignation. The committee is not expected to report until October at the earliest. That could be just as the Conservative Party gathers for its annual conference.

© 2022 Bloomberg

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