If only they had waited until today. Had Tory MPs cleared the threshold for a confidence vote in Boris Johnson this morning – amid the smouldering embers of two blazing by-election defeats – rather than earlier in the month, then he would surely be toast.
As it is, all that the Prime Minister’s many critics in the Conservative parliamentary party can do is seethe and wait a while for another opportunity to topple him.
As someone determined to continue in office, Johnson is able to do so unchallenged until 6 June, 2023, absent of an emergency change in 1922 Committee rules. Some Tory MPs will now push for such a change. Indeed 1922 Executive member Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown has already gone public with the suggestion that there will be an imminent discussion about the case for it.
A wiser course would be to leave the current rule in place but start engaging in some prudent succession planning. Because next June has long seemed about the optimum time for the Tories to decide who should lead them into the next general election.
To make a change now via a second ruthless putsch against Johnson just weeks after he survived an initial one, would surely create a lasting legacy of bitterness in Tory ranks. It would also parachute a successor almost unknown to the public into an extremely grim political context full of problems that appear intractable in the short-term, including a major land war in Europe and an acute cost-of-living crisis.
Such a move would risk tarnishing that person well before a general election expected at some point in 2024. Indeed, there is no guarantee that making a change when no outstanding or heavyweight alternative to Johnson can be identified would do anything other than tip the Conservatives deeper into an inescapable downward spiral.