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Boris Johnson has ruled out calling an early general election, as allies admitted that voters would not welcome a snap vote aimed at saving his premiership.
The move came as an exclusive poll for The Independent suggested that the Conservative Party would be defeated if a ballot was called now, with Labour falling just short of an overall majority but the prime minister potentially losing his own seat. It indicated that Mr Johnson’s personal standing among voters has plummeted in the wake of the Sue Gray report into Partygate and the abortive coup attempt by his own MPs.
But pressure on Mr Johnson was eased by the announcement that a Commons inquiry into claims he lied to parliament about Downing Street parties will not take evidence from witnesses until the autumn, granting him a few months’ grace to recover his position.
As the ranks of Tory MPs calling for Mr Johnson’s removal have grown in recent weeks, the prime minister’s advisers have used the threat of an early poll – and the possible loss of vulnerable seats – to bring wavering MPs into line.
But a source close to Mr Johnson dismissed the chances of him calling an early election this year, conceding that cutting and running at a time when he holds a commanding majority in the Commons would not be credible to voters.
“The PM won an 80-seat majority, people want us to use it to get s*** done, rather than hold another vote,” the source said.
Today’s poll by Savanta suggests an early election could be disastrous for Mr Johnson, with Labour extending their lead by a point since last month to seven, on 41 per cent against 34 per cent for Tories and 10 per cent for Liberal Democrats.
According to the electoral calculus calculator, this would translate into a hung parliament with Keir Starmer’s party around a dozen short of an overall majority in the Commons and able to form a fragile administration with Lib Dem support. Tories could lose more than 120 MPs and Mr Johnson’s Uxbridge seat would be one of those under threat.
The survey showed a collapse in Mr Johnson’s personal ratings over the course of a month in which he has been panned in the Partygate report, narrowly escaped being ejected by his own MPs and seen Tories humiliated in by-elections in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton.
Satisfaction in the PM’s performance plunged to -35, with just 30 per cent saying he was doing a good job and 65 per cent a bad one.
This compared to -26 in a similar poll conducted on 21-22 May, just days before the release of Ms Gray’s explosive report on lockdown breaches in Downing Street.
The survey also suggested that the fortunes of chancellor Rishi Sunak have begun to recover since The Independent’s revelation of his wife’s non-dom status knocked him off his position as frontrunner to succeed Mr Johnson.
After his announcement of a £15bn cost-of-living package to help households deal with soaring prices, the chancellor’s satisfaction rating has shot up from -20 to -2, and he has been restored as Mr Johnson’s closest challenger.
Some 18 per cent named the PM as best candidate for Tory leader (down four points since last month), against 13 per cent for Mr Sunak (up 5), 8 per cent for Jeremy Hunt (unchanged) and 6 per cent each for Liz Truss and Sajid Javid (unchanged).
David Canzini, senior strategist at No 10, is said to have warned a group of Tory MPs facing close re-election battles last month that an early election could be called.
Speculation about the possibility of an election as early as autumn 2022 has been rife at Westminster over recent weeks.
Rebel Tory MPs shared fears that Mr Johnson could respond to an attempted coup by going to the polls this autumn to get a new mandate, with one saying he’s “mad enough to bring the whole house down”.
The government’s move to repeal the Fixed Term Parliament Act introduced by David Cameron means Mr Johnson is free to call an election at a time of his choice and does not have to wait until the latest date in 2024.
The prime minister, currently at the Nato summit in Madrid, would not be drawn on an early election when grilled by reporters.
Asked if he was considering the plan, the PM said the media was free to offer “predictions about politics”, but insisted that he would not “cross over and start talking about politics”.
Questioned again if he was leaning towards an early election, he said: “Oh, for heaven’s sake! I am not offering commentary, what I’m trying to get over to you is that I’m here to comment on policy, on the agenda of government.”
It came as the group of cross-party MPs on the privileges committee unanimously backed Labour grandee Harriet Harman to chair the investigation that could determine Mr Johnson’s fate as PM.
In a move seemingly intended to encourage Downing Street whistleblowers to come forward, the MPs said they were willing to take anonymous evidence. But there was no decision on whether Mr Johnson and other witnesses will be able to provide testimony behind closed doors or will be subjected to a public grilling in front of TV cameras.
Rebel Tory MPs believe the investigation could provide a “flashpoint” for a fresh leadership challenge if the inquiry produces a damning verdict on Mr Johnson.
In the worst-case scenario for the PM, the committee could find him in contempt of parliament, triggering a possible suspension from the House or even a recall ballot in Uxbridge.
Current rules of the the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers mean the prime minister is safe from another confidence vote for 12 months, after narrowly winning a ballot of Tory MPs earlier this month.
But Tory MP Andrew Bridgen has said he will run for election to the 1922 Committee on the basis that the rules could be changed to allow a fresh confidence vote.
Fellow backbench rebel Steve Baker also said he would run for a place on the committee, and suggested he also wanted the rule on a 12-month grace period to change.
“We should not change the rules and vote again lightly. However, there are foreseeable circumstances in which the 1922 may need to act,” Mr Baker said earlier this week.
Savanta questioned 2,217 adults in Britain on 25-26 June.