A Tory leadership contest could cement Johnson’s hold on power

The number of Conservative MPs who have confirmed that they have sent letters of no confidence to the chair of the back bench 1922 Committee continues to tick upwards. Under party rules, if 15% of Conservative MPs write to the chair of the committee to express their loss of confidence in the party leader, a leadership contest will be triggered. 15% of the number of current Tory MPs is 54, and that is the number of letters that Committee chair Sir Graham Brady must receive if there is to be a leadership election.

The committee chair does not publish a running total of the number of letters he has received and not all MPs choose to reveal that they have submitted letters. Currently around 40 MPs have let it be known that they have lost confidence in Johnson, although it is not known if all of them have submitted formal letters to the 1922 Committee, however it is thought that a number of others have already done so but have chosen not to make the fact public. Often this reticence is out of fear of alienating their constituency associations, particularly if the push to remove the leader fails to gain sufficient support.

We have already seen the humiliating screeching U-turn performed by Scottish Tory branch manager Douglas Ross, who was very vocal about the urgency of Johnson’s need to resign when he thought that there was enough support to trigger a leadership contest, but as soon as it became clear that the move to unseat Johnson was fizzling out, all of a sudden Ross thought Johnson wasn’t doing such a bad job after all. There is no such thing as principle in the Conservative party, there is only a transactional calculation about what Conservative MPs think is best for their careers.

What is clear however is that disquiet about Johnson amongst Conservative MPs has reached such an extent that they are close to triggering a leadership contest. This may die down, as it did earlier this year, but it could still gain fresh momentum.

Parliament is in recess this week, MPs have returned to their constituencies where it is thought that many will take soundings from their local constituencies about the extent of the damage that Johnson’s lies and law breaking have done to their chances of re-election, which is all that the vast majority of Conservative MPs care about. An opinion poll published recently suggested that if a General Election was to be held just now the Conservatives could be facing the loss of as many as ninety seats, which would wipe out their majority and leave Labour as the largest party in Parliament. The party could even face the humiliation of Boris Johnson losing his own seat. No sitting British Prime Minister has lost their seat in a General Election since the Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Balfour lost his seat in the General Election of 1906.

Former Tory minister Tobias Ellwood a prominent Conservative critic of Johnson told Sky News that the party was “increasingly in a difficult place, adding “and we still seem to be in denial. It’s time to shake off this partisan Stockholm syndrome, I believe. Our party brand is suffering. We will lose the next election on current trajectory as reflected in recent elections.” The party is due to face two challenging by-elections on 23 June, one in Wakefield triggered by the 18 month jail sentence imposed on Conservative MP Imran Ahmad Khan following his conviction in April this year for the sexual assault of a 15 year old boy in 2008. The second by election on 23 June will be in the Conservative strong hold of Tiverton and Honiton in Devon. This by-election was called after Neil Parrish resigned when it came to light that he had been watching porn on his mobile phone in the Commons on two occasions.

Wakefield is one of the so-called Red Wall seats in Northern England which the Conservatives took from Labour in the 2019 General Election and Labour will be hoping to take the seat back from the Tories. This is one of the seats that Labour must recover if it is to have any chance of overtaking the Conservatives in a General Election.

Tiverton and Honiton covers an area which has not been represented in Westminster by a party other than the Conservatives since 1923. It is likely that the Conservatives will retain the seat, but nervous Tories will be watching how well the Lib Dems perform. A strong Lib Dem performance will reinforce Tory fears that Johnson has become an electoral liability who threatens their stranglehold on power.

Party managers will be doing their best to manage expectations before the by-elections and to some extent a drop in the Conservative vote is already priced in, however if Labour and the Lib Dems do much better than expected and there is a dramatic decline in the Tory vote, this will only encourage yet more Conservative MPs to submit letters of no-confidence in Johnson to Sir Graham Brady.

Yet even if a leadership contest is triggered, Johnson has made it clear that he has no intentions of going quietly and will fight tooth and nail to keep his job, using all the dirty tricks at his disposal. There is no obvious successor in sight. All the likely contenders are heavily implicated in the misgovernment which characterises the Johnson regime, while the hitherto prime contender Rishi Sunak, has also been fined by the police for breaching lockdown and has additional come under severe pressure due to his family’s tax arrangements. This pressure has cracked open Sunak’s carefully curated public image and has revealed him to be in his own way every bit as contrived, venal, and entitled as the man he would like to replace.

It is a shocking indictment of the Westminster system that the only way in which a lying law-breaking Prime Minister can be removed is if the Conservative MPs who put him in the highest office in full knowledge of his entitlement and propensity for lying and holding rules in contempt if he finds them inconvenient decide that it is in their personal and political interests to replace him with another of their number. Whoever does replace him will be just as committed to the Conservatives’ post-Brexit project of centralising power in Downing Street and continuing along the road of British nationalist authoritarianism.

There is every possibility that Johnson could survive a leadership challenge. If he does the rules of the Conservative party state that he cannot face another challenge for a year. That could be just what Johnson needs, it would give him a year during which he could behave as outrageously as he liked without fear of any consequences, and during which the UK’s democratic safeguards will continue to be attacked and undermined.

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