If Boris Johnson is a “dead man walking”, as one of his detractors put it yesterday, the question now is how long he spends on death row.
Despite the prime minister’s abject – though carefully-worded – apology, Westminster is febrile. Conservative MPs are openly debating how long he’s got, and one Tory insider told me “the vultures are circling” in the tea rooms. Contenders in a now hotly-anticipated leadership contest are said to be counting and corralling.
But though many Tory MPs seem to believe the events of the last few weeks have sentenced the prime minister to political death, it’s striking how few are prepared to deal the final blow.
Sir Roger Gale was one of the first to urge him to quit, but he’d already written to the chairman of the 1922 committee calling for a vote of no confidence after Dominic Cummings’ Barnard Castle escapade. He was followed later in the day by 1922 committee member William Wragg.
Jacob Rees-Mogg may view Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross as a lightweight, but his resignation demand will focus minds in Number 10 – driven, as it no doubt was, by fear of an SNP surge in the local elections in the spring.
That’s three so far. There may be more who scribbled their discontent in private, but 54 must come forward to trigger the confidence motion.
Clearly, this is going to take some time and will be very painful for all concerned. One senior backbencher reflected: "Having seen it up close, the defenestration of a prime minister who does not want to go is a long and brutal affair." The same MP listed Johnson’s failings at length. But when I asked if he himself had written a letter, he said he hadn’t. Others had a similar response.
Pressure from constituents might force their hands. So might further evidence of Downing Street misbehaviour, with rumours (no stronger than that) of two incriminating videos circulating in Westminster.
The money may soon start talking too. Conservative donor and Phones4U founder John Caudwell said before the prime ministerial apology: “Sort it out, Boris, or step aside and let someone else sort it out so that the Tories aren’t wiped out at the next election.”
Other financial backers are also deeply worried. “People are quite shocked,” one big donor told me. He was pleased by the apology, and suggested he’d probably continue donating – though he didn’t view Sir Keir Starmer as a disaster for the country, unlike his predecessor, as Labour leader. He also predicted Johnson was finished and said he’d be making his concerns known to his local MP and the party chairman.
The lack of agreement on a successor may yet save Johnson. When I interviewed Sir Roger last night, he reeled off the usual list of contenders: the chancellor Rishi Sunak, foreign secretary Liz Truss, and health select committee chairman Jeremy Hunt – with foreign affairs select committee chairman Tom Tugendhat and trade minister Penny Mordaunt thrown in for good measure.
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Sunak certainly has the edge for now, though he isn’t the shoo-in some of his supporters might have you think. One senior Conservative said: “I’d like to see how his popularity stands up when he’s closing the deficit rather than writing large cheques,” noting he “seems to have avoided any criticism for breaking the rules”.
He’s playing a very careful game. As the prime minister squirmed in the Commons, his chancellor was 175 miles away in sunny Ilfracombe. Admittedly he managed to find – at 8.20pm – the words to back his Downing Street neighbour, one of no fewer than 20 cabinet ministers to lend their support yesterday. But you rather got the sense some of them did it through gritted teeth.
Ms Truss waited until 9.14pm to tweet: “I stand behind the prime minister 100 per cent as he takes our country forward.” Yes, she really is behind you, prime minister.
I asked the energy minister, Greg Hands, on last night’s Channel 4 News several times if he felt comfortable being sent out to defend the boss. “I’m always comfortable to appear on your programme and talk about the work of the government,” was his first effort.
When pushed, he finally came up with: “I’ve known the prime minister for 30 years. I’ve known him as mayor of London, as prime minister, as foreign secretary, as a fellow member of parliament. I’m comfortable going out there defending the prime minister.” When that’s the best Johnson’s closest friends can do, he really had better watch his back.
Cathy Newman presents Channel 4 News, weekdays at 7pm
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