Boris Johnson has been warned by Conservative MPs that his leadership could be under serious threat if the party loses next week’s by-election in North Shropshire and worsening poll numbers do not improve.
The prime minister is under mounting pressure over the No 10 Christmas party scandal and the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat, after ethics adviser Lord Geidt restarted his investigation into the funding of the redecorations.
Tory MPs told The Independent that backbenchers normally supportive of Mr Johnson are now discussing whether or not he should lead the party into the next general election – and say Thursday’s contest in North Shropshire will be key.
One senior Conservative MP told The Independent: “If we lost the by-election and Lord Geidt resigns then he would be in huge trouble. A by-election loss will damage the idea of him as an election winner. The public haven’t historically applied the same rules to him – but that is fading away.”
The former cabinet minister added: “[Mr Johnson] may have nine lives – more than most politicians – but he is using up a lot of them. If he gets through Christmas and manages to reset in the New Year, he will still be far more fragile when the next crisis comes.”
One red wall Tory MP told The Independent: “There is a change in mood. People who had been supportive are now discussing whether we still need him, and whether he’s done what he needed to do for us in terms of Brexit.”
The backbencher added: “He might be able to get through the Christmas parties thing by sacking a few people. The flat stuff is bad, but maybe not fatal on its own. It’s a by-election defeat and bad poll numbers into next year that would really rattle everyone and put him under huge pressure.”
The red wall MP said Mr Johnson’s opponents in the party could easily gather the 55 signatures required for the powerful 1922 Committee of backbenchers to initiate a vote of no confidence – but they won’t move until they have dozens more MPs fully behind his removal.
“I’d be surprised if a challenge happened quickly,” said the backbencher. “Support for him is ebbing away, but a lot of MPs haven’t really coalesced behind anyone else yet.”
The Liberal Democrats are now favourites with every major bookmakers to win the 16 December North Shropshire by-election, sparked after ex-Tory MP Owen Paterson was found to have broken lobbying rules.
Mr Johnson’s personal popularity has slumped to an all-time low of -42 as the public lose confidence in the scandal-hit Tory leader, according to a new YouGov poll. Some 66 per cent said they hold a negative opinion of him.
And a Focaldata survey for Times Radio on Friday put Labour on 41 per cent – giving Sir Keir Starmer’s party an eight-point lead over the Tories, a day after a Survation poll put Labour six points ahead.
In a further blow to his authority, Nusrat Ghani, the vice-chair of the 1922 backbench committee of Conservative MPs, refused to give Mr Johnson her backing and warned: “The mood in parliament is not good.”
Describing the investigation by the cabinet secretary Simon Case into a series of alleged festive parties as “absolutely key” to Mr Johnson’s future, Ms Ghani told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Let’s see what the investigation draws out.”
Mr Johnson also faces a large rebellion of Tory MPs when his plan B restrictions come before the Commons on Tuesday, after dozens of lockdown sceptics made clear their opposition to the introduction of Covid certification for nightclubs and large events. The new curbs are still expected to pass thanks to Labour support, however.
Tory peer Gavin Barwell said his party’s MPs are “definitely” speaking about how to replace Mr Johnson as prime minister. “Boris, more than anyone, knows his position depends on being seen as an electoral asset,” Lord Barwell told Today. “If over time that goes, he really is in trouble.”
Dominic Cummings, his former chief aide, claimed there were photos of the Christmas parties that will “inevitably get out” and predicted Mr Johnson would “be gone before the next election ... probably summer”.
He rubbished the idea that the prime minister could not have been aware of the parties, because the key one – on 18 December – is believed to have happened close to his own office. “To get upstairs, he has to walk past that area where he could see it,” Mr Cummings said in a question-and-answer session on his blog.
Pressure over parties held at Downing Street in the run-up to last Christmas stepped up after it emerged that Mr Johnson’s top communications adviser Jack Doyle handed out awards at the gathering on 18 December.
No 10 did not deny that Mr Doyle had offered his resignation, after it was reported that the prime minister had refused to accept his departure.
To add to the prime minister’s troubles, it emerged on Friday that his ethics adviser Lord Geidt revived an investigation into the financing of his lavish flat refurbishment and was promised he will be given any information he demands.
Lord Geidt contacted Downing Street after an Electoral Commission report appeared to show he “misled” the adviser’s own inquiry over when he knew about the financial arrangements.
Asked about Mr Johnson’s troubles, former cabinet minister Robert Buckland told BBC’s Newscast: “If I was him looking in the mirror I’d be saying, ‘Surely I can do this better’.”
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