Voices: Forget the boos – this is why Boris Johnson may still be prime minister this time next year

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My conclusion is that the PM is probably staying put for the time being (Getty)
My conclusion is that the PM is probably staying put for the time being (Getty)

The excitement about the imminent downfall of the prime minister reached such a pitch before the nation paused to celebrate a round number that when Boris Johnson was lightly booed on the steps of St Paul’s it was received as if it were a message from upstairs: it’s over.

I am not so sure. What was significant about the response to the publication of Sue Gray’s report was that it fell short of the threshold for a vote of confidence, and I thought the tide had started running the other way, in Johnson’s favour, over the past week.

The week’s big name, for example, was Andrea Leadsom, who said Johnson was responsible for “failings of leadership that cannot be tolerated”, but said “my colleagues and I must now decide on what is the right course of action”, implying that the failings can actually be tolerated for a little longer.

There are a lot of Conservative MPs in that position, having said Johnson must go, or words to that effect, but silent on whether they have sent a letter to Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee. Some of them have, we can be sure, but many of them have not. Many of them are waiting and seeing, and they are likely to go on waiting and seeing when MPs return to parliament on Monday.

Having taken soundings in the past few days, my conclusion is that Johnson is probably staying put for the time being. The one obstacle to removing him that no one can get over is the absence of a credible election-winning candidate with which to replace him.

I can see how Tory MPs might trigger the confidence vote without an obvious alternative lined up. It is possible for 54 of them to conclude that anyone would be better than the incumbent (or to be reasonably but wrongly sure that their preferred candidate would succeed), but I don’t think it is likely that 180 of them would vote to oust Johnson in favour of an unknown winner from the current field.

That is where things have changed since January, when Johnson could easily have lost a confidence vote once it had been triggered. That was because the default alternative was Rishi Sunak. At the time, he seemed a better choice to lead the Tories into the next election than Johnson. Liz Truss might have made a strong rival pitch, but many MPs expected her to perform poorly in an actual leadership campaign.

Now, even Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser who is dedicated to removing his one-time boss, accepts that the prime minister is staying. “As far as we know,” he said when Suzanne Moore asked him that question on Tuesday. “The fact that Rishi blew himself up makes it much more likely that Boris will somehow survive. I don’t want to say ‘no chance’, but I think Rishi is out of the running.”

Cummings had fixed on Sunak as the means by which he would get his revenge, praising him in his account of the coronavirus response even though the chancellor was sometimes at odds with Cummings’s own pro-lockdown stance. I have tried to argue that Sunak could recover over time, but it will be hard in such testing economic times, so Cummings may be right.

In which case Tory MPs are looking again at Truss. David Gauke, the former Tory MP, suggested on Newsnight on Tuesday that she could be the next leader by the autumn, running as a tax-cutting Conservative who looks “hungrier” than her rivals. But her negatives remain. She was a Remainer; more than that, she was once a Liberal Democrat. The video clip of her advocating the abolition of the monarchy to the Lib Dem conference in 1994 is doing the rounds on social media over the jubilee weekend.

Jeremy Hunt has strong support from MPs, and he fought a good campaign against Johnson last time, but was a Remainer too, and his 34 per cent of the final vote among party members seems like a ceiling rather than a platform on which to build.

Among Leavers, Penny Mordaunt, now a trade minister outside the cabinet, was talked up by her supporters this week as a unity candidate, which may be a coded way of saying she could do a deal with Hunt for his backing as the “stop Truss” candidate. Unlike Truss, she enjoys a net positive rating in opinion polls, but this may be because two-thirds of the voters haven’t heard of her.

Mordaunt has a good CV (Royal Navy reserve) and was photographed sending military kit to Ukraine, but like the other possible candidates – Tom Tugendhat, Ben Wallace, Nadhim Zahawi – she is untested.

The only Leave minister with significant experience is Michael Gove, the levelling-up secretary. Again, even Cummings, who used to work with him at education and who is an admirer, accepts that, “whatever you might think of Michael Gove’s abilities, he is not a loved character”.

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Cummings went on to say: “There are some very junior people who I like, who I won’t curse by naming – if I name them everyone will hate them.” I assume he means Kemi Badenoch, who has delivered some fearless performances at the despatch box as a junior equalities minister. But she really is untested.

Which is why I think the prime minister is safe for now. If you were a Tory MP would you want to take your chances with that lot? Getting rid of a sitting prime minister is a big deal, and the Conservative Party did it only three years ago. Then, the incumbent had failed to deliver the purpose of her premiership, and the default alternative offered at least the chance of finishing the job.

Now, the incumbent has served his purpose, and has ruined whatever relationship he had with the British people, but it is not obvious what comes next. The temptation for Tory MPs is to wait for something to turn up – and more importantly for somebody to prove themselves as a possible leader. With an election not likely until 2024 and the economy precluding an early dash to the polls, Johnson could still be in post this time next year.

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