Tories ponder Johnson’s future following local election reverses
It was always going to be a difficult night for the Tories, but was it bad enough to warrant a change in the occupant of No 10?
That will be the question unhappy Conservative MPs will be pondering over the coming days as they weigh up whether Boris Johnson is the leader to take them forward to the next general election.
The headlines certainly make grim reading, with the flagship Wandsworth council – reputedly Margaret Thatcher’s favourite – among those to fall.
Analysis for the BBC by Professor Sir John Curtice calculated that if the whole country had been voting on Thursday, Labour would have been five points ahead – its biggest local election lead in a decade.
For grassroots Tories who lost their seats, the cause of their woes was clear with voters still angry over lockdown parties in No 10 in breach of Covid regulations.
The issue of trust in the Prime Minister – who said repeatedly that no rules had been broken – was said to have come up regularly on the doorstep.
The party is also under pressure over the cost-of-living crisis, as soaring energy prices put the squeeze on household incomes.
Conservative MPs in the South and the South West may also be looking nervously at the strong performance of the Liberal Democrats following their recent by-election successes.
Against that, allies of Mr Johnson say this was always going to be a difficult set of elections, coming midway through the parliamentary electoral cycle, with some losses already “priced in”.
Crucially, they argue that while Labour did well in London, elsewhere in the country it was not making the sort of gains that would put Sir Keir Starmer on the road for victory at a general election.
For some Tory MPs, Mr Johnson’s position has been untenable ever since he was fined for his attendance at a 56th birthday bash in the Cabinet Room and they have been calling openly for him to go.
For that to translate into a leadership challenge, it would require 53 Tory MPs – 15% of the parliamentary party – to write to the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady, calling for a vote of no confidence.
However, some of those demanding Mr Johnson’s resignation at the start of the year have since withdrawn their letters arguing that the crisis in Ukraine is the wrong time for a prolonged leadership struggle.
There is also the issue of a successor. Former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt and the present incumbent Liz Truss have been touted as possible candidates.
But the previous frontrunner, Rishi Sunak, has also now been fined and has been badly damaged by disclosures over his wife’s “non dom” status and that he held a US green card while Chancellor.
A No 10 insider told the PA news agency there was simply no better option than Mr Johnson.
“Keir Starmer is clearly not making the progress he needs to even dream of being in government and it’s hard to imagine any other Conservative leader doing better than this,” the source said.
The announcement that the Labour leader is now facing a police investigation for possible lockdown violations may further complicate the issue in the minds of some Tories.
However, MPs will be well aware the Government’s position is unlikely to improve in the short term, with the squeeze in living standards only set to intensify.
And there could still be more fines, with the prospect of the final report into lockdown parties by the senior civil servant Sue Gray still to come.
In the end it is likely to come down to a cold, hard calculation by Tory MPs as to whether their leader is still an electoral asset or has become a liability.
If they do decide that this is not the moment to act, it may only be a matter of a stay of execution rather than a final reprieve.