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Boris Johnson (Photo: Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty)
For a few weeks, it seemed as though Boris Johnson had managed to steady the ship.
From the dark days of January and February, when his leadership was on the brink due to the allegations of lockdown rule-breaking in Downing Street, the prime minister had got back on track.
The war in Ukraine provided him with the opportunity to focus on international affairs, and his response to the crisis has been widely-praised.
Some MPs who had previously submitted letters of no confidence in his leadership withdrew them, insisting now would be the wrong time to change prime ministers.
Using the breathing space Ukraine had afforded him, Johnson attempted to get on the front foot by publishing an energy security strategy which, he claimed, would eventually help to tackle the cost of living crisis.
Rishi Sunak’s well-publicised troubles over his wife’s non-dom tax status and the row over his decision to hang on to a US green card while being a government minister meant there was no obvious successor should the PM fall, further shoring up Johnson’s position.
But the Metropolitan Police’s decision to fine Johnson – as well as his wife and Sunak – for attending a No. 10 birthday party for the prime minister in June 2020 – returned partygate to the front pages and raised fundamental questions about his judgment.
Although he apologised, Johnson vowed to ride out the controversy, even though further fines are expected for other gatherings he attended.
U-turn if you want to
But this week’s chaotic handling of Labour’s attempt to hold a privileges committee inquiry into whether the PM misled parliament over partygate showed how precarious his position remains.
Having initially tried to block it, Johnson was eventually forced to U-turn after it became clear that dozens of his own MPs – including some ministers – were refusing to support his position.
“I know one colleague who told the whips they were willing to be sacked rather than vote with the government,” revealed one backbencher.
MPs eventually agreed that the privileges committee will hold an inquiry once the police investigations into partygate are over and after Sue Gray has published her full report into the affair, meaning it will dog Johnson for months to come.
Former minister Tobias Ellwood is among those who want Johnson out. (Photo: Kirsty O'Connor via PA Wire/PA Images)
Nightmare on Downing Street
With the opinion polls becoming increasingly grim for the Tories, their MPs realise that something needs to happen soon to change their fortunes. The only problem is they can’t agree on what that should be.
One former cabinet minister told HuffPost UK: “A lot of people feel trapped in a nightmare that doesn’t end and they don’t see how it can.”
Their dilemma is best summed up by Craig Whittaker, a former government whip whose patience with Johnson snapped a long time ago.
On the BBC on Thursday, he said: “I don’t believe for one minute that Boris Johnson has taken responsibility for his actions, an apology doesn’t constitute taking responsibility and that’s why I’ve asked him to resign.”
But while he wants Johnson out, Whittaker doesn’t want a leadership contest either.
Tobias Ellwood, another Johnson critic, implored his colleagues to wake up before it’s too late.
He said: “We must stop drinking the Kool-Aid that’s encouraging us to think this is all going to disappear and that we can all move on.”
With his critics divided on how best to proceed, it’s unsurprising that the PM still feels confident that he’ll be in charge for a while yet.
He is helped by the fact that there is no obvious replacement for him since Rishi Sunak’s spectacular fall from grace.
“Rishi’s support has evaporated,” said one senior Conservative MP. “I doubt he’ll stand at the next election.”
Others take the view that deposing Johnson at the height of the Ukraine crisis would be madness.
One former Tory minister told HuffPost UK: “Look, I like Boris. I was really upset about partygate, really upset.
“But I think with everything going on now in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis it would be absolutely insane to get rid of him.
“I also don’t see what the alternative is. There isn’t anyone. And why would we put government on hold for months? It is the last thing we need.”
A row over his wife's non-dom status has seen Rishi Sunak's leadership hopes evaporate. (Photo: Ian West via PA Wire/PA Images)
A kick in the ballots?
The local elections in two weeks’ time are another potential trigger point. Predictions of 800 Tory losses are no more than expectation management, to allow anything less than that can be presented as success. But party insiders are still bracing themselves for a bad night.
The people who will ultimately decide whether Johnson makes it to the next general election as leader are Conservative MPs, who have it in their gift to boot him out of office if they think he is leading them to defeat at the next election.
Ominously for the PM, Steve Baker – whose ability to organise Tory rebellions ultimately saw off David Cameron and Theresa May – this week withdrew his support, telling Johnson: “The gig is up.”
Meanwhile, Tory peer Lord Hayward – a highly-respected psephologist – described Johnson’s situation as “death by a thousand cuts”.
But while a consensus seems to be forming among Tory backbenchers that the PM must go, they cannot agree on when it should happen, how it can be done and who should replace him.
As one astute Tory backbencher observed: “I think now it’s something left field that’ll do for him – but who knows when?”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.