Today’s no-confidence vote in Boris Johnson is best seen as the next stage of a determined long-term plot to bring him down rather than as a stand-alone event. That is to say, Johnson will not be safe or restored to anything like full political health simply by winning it. Unless he triumphs by a crushing margin, he will have been further weakened and face new waves of attacks from a Labour opposition into whose lap huge amounts of extra ammunition will have been deposited by Conservative backbenchers.
One can almost already hear Keir Starmer at PMQs this week making the taunting observation that ‘more than a hundred of the people sitting behind him right now agree with most of the British people that he isn’t fit for office’. The spectacle of Johnson struggling to keep his head above water – and internal plots against PMs are always in part a mass spectator sport – will further weaken Tory prospects in both of the impending by-elections; one in Johnson’s northern Red Wall, one in the traditional Tory Blue Wall.
So don’t believe Conservative loyalists who claim that any numerical win this evening automatically ends the uncertainty about whether this PM will lead the party into the next election. Indeed, it is far more likely that Johnson will be pitched even deeper into crisis as soon as the morning of Friday 24 June when the by-election results in Wakefield and in Tiverton & Honiton have been declared.
Exactly six years after his Brexit referendum triumph he will very likely be staring at the damage caused by a double-barrelled blast from both parts of the electoral coalition he forged. So, having given their most activist parliamentary picadors the green light to weaken the bull, logic suggests that many Tory MPs will decide their only option is to make sure he is killed. This will in turn swell the anti-Johnson vote tonight, especially given the secret nature of the ballot.
It is not impossible for an embattled Tory PM to fend off internal opposition once a crisis point has been reached. John Major managed it under different rules in 1995 when he beat John Redwood in a self-induced leadership contest by 218 votes to 89. Yet the result still ultimately proved another nail in Major’s coffin when Redwood’s campaign slogan – ‘no change, no chance’ – was borne out less than two years later by a landslide general election defeat.
Much more recently, in December 2018, Theresa May won a confidence vote by 200 to 117. The party rules supposedly dictated that this made her safe for a year. In fact, she was drummed out of office just seven months later after disastrous European election results.
The disingenuous postures of many of Johnson’s parliamentary critics – combining a challenge to him of ‘why aren’t you ahead in the polls?’ with an incessant public chorus of ‘you’re useless and a liar’ – is likely to be found repellent by a big chunk of Tory supporters. Yet this in turn will tend to further depress the party’s poll rating and further weaken Johnson’s position.
If he pulls through it will be by the skin of his teeth and his arithmetic parliamentary majority of more than 70 could soon feel more like an ungovernable rabble, in reality, hamstringing his ability to enact radical policies popular with Tory-leaning voters. That would be another gift to Starmer and Labour.
Were there an obvious established successor to Johnson who had already demonstrated an ability to put together a winning electoral coalition then the plotting against him would make more sense. In fact, any replacement will walk into Downing Street as an unknown to millions of voters and without any personal mandate for whatever policy programme they propose. This, more than anything else, is the consideration in favour of Johnson that will weigh heaviest in the minds of uncommitted Tory MPs today.
Those with specific beefs against him – whether over Brexit or their own truncated careers – are by now unbiddable. But cooler heads will worry that switching back to a conventional Home Counties-orientated Tory agenda will present Labour with a walkover in 40-plus Red Wall seats. Any replacement to Johnson is likely to be seen as a fag end premier, lacking legitimacy and simply marking time before the party’s next ominous appointment with the electorate.
The man once dubbed by David Cameron as the ‘greased piglet’ of politics is in his tightest spot yet. But not every escape route is completely closed off to him yet.