Some Tory MPs are hoping that Dominic Cummings’ departure from Downing Street will bring with it a vital lift to Boris Johnson’s premiership. Other Tory MPs have made up their minds about Boris already. Either they think he was always a flawed character whose only use was winning them the 2019 general election, a job long since passed; or they have been turned off by any number of things that have transpired in 2020. Basically, some Conservative MPs will be disappointed in 2021 when Boris turns out to be Boris; others are past caring.
In spite of this, it seems almost certain that Boris Johnson remains in Number 10 for the next three-and-a-half years and contests the 2024 general election as leader of the Conservative party. Boris is likely to be saved by a combination of inertia and fear of what follows him.
Why? Because even Boris's critics admit that there is no clear-cut successor waiting in the wings. Some might point to Rishi Sunak, but there are plenty of question marks around him. His public popularity appears to rest on him being a chancellor doling out enormous sums of money in the middle of a crisis to try and save as many jobs as he can.
That is set against Boris, who has often looked muddled and out of his depth this year, and Hancock, who has often looked way, way out of his depth during the course of the crisis. The question around Sunak’s ability to be prime minister is what happens when you take those two things away.
How popular he will be when he has to start cutting spending, as he will have to at some point? The suggestion that public sector pay will be frozen is already causing ructions. And it's wise to remember that while Sunak is youthful and cool (at least compared to many of his Tory colleagues), he is, nonetheless, an orthodox Tory chancellor, even if the events of this year might suggest otherwise.
Essentially, if you take away the backdrop of the pandemic and a bumbling Boris/Hancock display, will Rishi Sunak win the Tories the next election if he’s their leader? There is still plenty of doubt about his ability to emulate Boris; it would be a brave – and arguably foolish – bet for Tory MPs to favour what is still an unknown quantity.
There are other contenders on the backbenches who some Tory MPs could see doing a very capable job. Hunt and Javid spring to mind. Yet both of these figures are keeping a relatively low profile at present, waiting for their moment to rise.
This points to a chicken and egg problem that is highly advantageous to Boris: most of the possible next leaders of the Conservative party don’t want to put their heads above the parapet until the next leadership contest is well and truly on, yet until someone does come forward and presents themselves convincingly as the next prime minister, Tory MPs will most likely keep Johnson in place for fear of the unknown.
We’ve seen this play out before. Gordon Brown is the best example in relatively recent times. Although most of the parliamentary Labour party could see the problems Brown’s premiership was having and were (rightly as it turns out) worried about his ability to win a general election as leader, every coup fell flat on its face in its very early stages.
Labour MPs wanted to get rid of Brown but were at the same time unconvinced that publicly defenestrating him and then putting in his place someone who could turn out to be a catastrophe would be any better. Thinking about what subsequently happened with Ed Miliband’s leadership confirms that their worries were not wholly unjustified.
A very similar thing could play out with Boris Johnson in 2021 and 2022. His popularity never picks up again; neither does the Tory standing in the polls, as the parties stay neck-and-neck, or worse, Labour starts cementing a decent lead. He annoys the right of the party while not impressing any other part of it. Brexit goes badly and he is held responsible for that by all sides. Yet he still stays in Downing Street as no one can unite around another figure to carry the Conservative party forward. There are rumours of letters to the chair of the 1922 Committee, but nothing ever actually comes of it. Every once in a while, it looks like someone might be about to make a real run for it, creating a crisis for Boris – yet it fizzles out in the end.
The problem the Tories have if this scenario plays out is that it could result in a situation in which Boris reaches the nadir of his popularity in the spring of 2024, just as Starmer reaches the apex of his. In other words, by being timid, Tory MPs could be sowing the seeds of their own downfall. Yet as history has shown us, MPs often stick with the devil they know than choose to jump into the unknowable. His critics won't like it, but for now Boris looks safe.