If Boris Johnson’s successor called an election now – they wouldn’t win

The much-promised shake-up of Downing Street might be a damp squib

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 26 January 2022 15:44
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Cressida Dick confirms ‘Met is now investigating’ Downing Street partygate allegations

The latest argument made by Boris Johnson allies as he struggles for survival is to warn Tory MPs that if they oust him, his successor would need to call a general election in a few months to secure their own mandate.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Commons leader, told the BBC’s Newsnight last night: “It is my view that we have moved, for better or worse, to essentially a presidential system and that therefore the mandate is personal rather than entirely party, and that any prime minister would be very well advised to seek a fresh mandate.”

He pointed out that Gordon Brown did not call an election when he succeeded Tony Blair and lost the eventual one, while Johnson did seek a mandate after replacing Theresa May and won the election. The comparison is bogus: both Brown and Johnson acted out of what they perceived to be their self-interest (though with hindsight Brown should have called a 2007 election as he would probably have won it, and his hesitation was deeply damaging).

If Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss take over from Johnson, as they may well do very soon, would they call an election with the Tories trailing Labour by 10 points in the opinion polls? Of course not. They wouldn’t need to, and so they wouldn’t do it – at least until they got a bounce in the polls, which would be hard to achieve as national insurance, council tax and energy bill rises bite in April.

The spectre of an election has also been raised with wavering Tory backbenchers by Johnson loyalists running his “shadow whipping operation”. It’s a desperate scare tactic in the hope that Tory MPs, especially those in the red wall with slim majorities, stick with Johnson. I doubt it will cut much ice.

The 2019 intake of Tory MPs is an independent-minded bunch. The pandemic meant they spent much less time at Westminster than their predecessors, so they have not yet been sucked into its clubby atmosphere. The traditional threats from the whips – such as “there would be a general election” – are out of time. The Johnson camp should have known better after William Wragg, chair of the public administration select committee, reported the whips’ strong-arm tactics to the police, claiming evidence of “blackmail” in denying rebel MPs public money for their constituencies.

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Other arguments designed to save Johnson’s skin also crumbled as the ground shifted beneath his feet in recent weeks. We have seen the Downing Street spin that Sue Gray’s investigation into “Partygate” had found no evidence of criminality. Not true. We have moved from Johnson’s claim that there were was “no party” before Christmas 2020, to his feeble suggestion that no one told him another party in the No 10 garden was against the rules, to pleas for a sense of proportion and, ludicrously, that he was “ambushed with a cake” on his birthday in the cabinet room, as Northern Ireland minister Conor Burns told Channel 4 News.

This “out of all proportion” argument has now been blown out of the water by the Metropolitan Police’s decision to investigate “Partygate”. I doubt the police would waste their time picking over the crumbs of a cake.

The imminent Gray report will surely prove the tipping point that persuades many Tory MPs to call for a vote of confidence in Johnson. Although “wait for Sue Gray” will be succeeded by pleas from the PM’s allies to “wait for the police”, many Tories, including some ministers, are aching to end this crisis as soon as possible. They privately agree with Labour that Johnson has become a “distraction”.

This feeling demolishes another Johnson argument: that, with Europe possibly on the brink of war in Ukraine, it is no time for a change of PM. As one Tory MP told me: “It’s a moment for a serious leader.” With Keir Starmer waiting in the wings, it’s another reason for the Tories to change horses.

Publication of the Gray report will not end this sorry saga because of the police investigation. It will paralyse the government and deny Johnson the reset moment he desperately needs. The much-promised shake-up of Downing Street might be a damp squib; it could be harder to persuade heavyweights to go in while the police inquiry still hangs over Johnson.

Attempts to spin the Met’s intervention as good news for Johnson have also fallen flat. As Tony Blair recalled in his memoirs, the “wretched” police inquiry into “cash for honours” was “totally destabilising” for his premiership. Although no one was prosecuted, it lasted more than a year. “Each moment we started to come up for air and get going again, we would be dragged back below the waterline,” Blair wrote.

Tory MPs say they have had enough instability. They should now bring it to an end.

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