yessenior Conservative MP David Davis has warned that Boris Johnson’s premiership faces “death by a thousand cuts”. Heavy losses in the local elections have affected yet another blow on the wounded prime minister. Are we watching his slow and painful demise of him?
Johnson appears to have survived the bruising results – close to 500 Tory seats lost – without a loud clamor for his resignation from Tory backbenchers. We have not seen a significant number of new MPs turn against him in public.
But there are signs of another precarious period ahead for the PM. Tory MPs in the “blue wall” heartlands in the south of England are spooked by results that were worse than expected. They now have clear evidence of how many voters loathe the idea of law-breaking parties in Downing Street.
As one senior critic says, mistrust in the prime minister over Partygate now seems “baked in” among traditional Tory voters. Some of the griping about results has come from his usual opponents of him. But some who have not previously spoken out against Johnson now appear to be wrestling with the leadership question.
David Simmonds, the Tory MP for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, has wondered out loud whether “a change of leader” could be one way of restoring confidence in the party. Marcus Fysh, MP for Yeovil, said colleagues would have to discuss whether Johnson was “the right person” to lead the new approach that is needed on the economy.
No 10 is pointing to the fact that the Tories fared better in the Midlands and the north of England, where Labor made precious few gains in red-wall territory, and where Brexit appears to have created a lasting problem for Keir Starmer’s party.
Johnson can also take heart from Starmer’s “Beergate” problem. It may only offer a brief breathing space for the prime minister, however, if the Labor leader manages to avoid a fine over the takeaway meal enjoyed with colleagues during a campaign event in Durham last April.
Regardless of Starmer’s woes, there are some huge and dangerous hurdles ahead for the PM. With the elections now over, Scotland Yard could announce fresh ends over parties. And the publication of senior civil servant Sue Gray’s report – said to be damning – awaits the conclusion of the police inquiry.
There are potentially difficult by-elections in Wakefield, Tiverton and Honiton still to come in the next six weeks or so, with Labor confident of overturning the Tories’ 3,000-plus majority in the West Yorkshire seat.
Would a reshuffle help? Johnson is thought to be considering a shake-up of his top team before the summer recess starts in late July. The prospect may keep ministers on their toes for a while. But with an already compliant cabinet, the real threat will continue to come from the back benches.
It’s difficult to see how Johnson wins new allies in the parliamentary party in the months ahead. Even if he survives until the autumn without the threshold of 54 no-confidence letters being reached, he has the run-up to conference season to contend with.
Many who are sitting on the fence could use the period to ask themselves whether he is the right person to lead them into the next general election.
Once a few dozen existing rebels decide to send in their letters to the 1922 Committee chair, it takes a simple majority – around 180 MPs – to force a change of leader. If the contest took place tomorrow, the smart money would be on Johnson’s survival from him.
But if a vote were to take place after the messy period of new fines, fresh apologies, and the full-fat Sue Gray report, more Tory MPs may be more inclined to take the long view and consider whether a new leader might have a better chance of restoring the party’s fortunes.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.