Voices: These are the three scenarios Boris Johnson faces now

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Boris Johnson will be desperately trying to lock in other ministers, knowing that the loss of one or two more senior figures would spell the end for him  (UK Parliament/AFP/Getty)
Boris Johnson will be desperately trying to lock in other ministers, knowing that the loss of one or two more senior figures would spell the end for him (UK Parliament/AFP/Getty)

A cabinet coup against Boris Johnson is finally under way, after the dramatic resignations of both Rishi Sunak and his predecessor as chancellor Sajid Javid. Johnson’s nightmare is that others will follow, making it impossible for him to limp on as prime minister however reluctant he may be to stand down.

All day on Tuesday at Westminster there was an “end of days” atmosphere, as previously loyal ministers, and Tory backbenchers who backed Johnson in last month’s vote of confidence, said privately they could no longer defend the indefensible, after the PM’s shambolic handling of the Chris Pincher scandal. Backbenchers stepped up their demands for cabinet ministers to walk out in order to bring down Johnson, yet most saw little prospect of that happening in the short term.

Now the chancellor and the health secretary have bowed to that pressure. The two men are allies who both still have ambitions to become PM; Johnson’s remaining allies will inevitably see their actions as a leadership bid. Sunak was Javid’s number two at the Treasury, and won a surprise promotion to the chancellor’s job when Javid resigned in 2020 after losing a power struggle against Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s then chief adviser.

Sunak and Javid were excoriating in their resignations, which allies claimed were not coordinated but were released just after Johnson gave a defiant TV interview in which he denied lying about the Pincher scandal. Sunak said the process of government was not being “conducted properly, competently and seriously”. Javid said the public “rightly expect integrity from their government”, adding that, under Johnson, the Tories are perceived to be neither popular nor competent.

Three scenarios now loom. Firstly, that further resignations force Johnson to accept that he cannot form a credible cabinet. Dominic Raab, the deputy PM, is sticking with him. Johnson will be desperately trying to lock in other ministers, knowing that the loss of one or two more senior figures would spell the end for him. The likelihood is that Sunak and Javid will not be the last. Other ministers who have leadership aspirations, including Liz Truss, Ben Wallace, Nadhim Zahawi and Penny Mordaunt, will be weighing up what is in their best interests as well as those of the party and the country. (So far, Truss and Wallace are sticking with Johnson, as are Michael Gove and Priti Patel.)

Leadership hopefuls know that they could win plaudits from Tory MPs and party activists for being brave enough to resign. But if the coup fails, their own prospects could be damaged as punishment for their disloyalty in joining in an act of attempted regicide. Until Tuesday night, one reason that cabinet figures were reluctant to move against Johnson was that Tory folklore dictates that “he who wields the dagger does not win the crown” – after Michael Heseltine challenged Margaret Thatcher in 1990 but John Major succeeded her. It isn’t always true: Thatcher won the Tory leadership in 1975 after having the courage to challenge Edward Heath.

The 1922 Committee of Tory MPs could also play a role in dislodging Johnson. Even without another confidence vote, Graham Brady, the committee’s chair, could tell the PM he had lost the support of a majority of his MPs. Some 148of them voted against him in last month’s confidence vote, and only 32 need to change sides for Johnson to have “lost” his MPs. Brady might intervene if a majority of the 360 Tory MPs demanded another vote.

The second scenario is that Johnson prevents a wave of further resignations. He would then look to the Commons summer recess, which starts on 21 July. Sunak’s and Javid’s decisions will embolden the Tory critics who want to force another confidence vote before then, which it may be possible to do if the rule saying a leader cannot face a second vote within 12 months is able to be changed. But Johnson might manage to survive until recess, which would give him breathing space and put off another confidence vote until September. Then he would try to delay the vote until after the Tory conference in Birmingham in October, in the hope that the loyal instincts of Tory activists might bolster his position.

The next threat to him would then be the inquiry by the Commons privileges committee into whether he lied to parliament over Partygate. If he survived that, poor results for the Tories in next May’s local elections could offer his opponents their final chance to oust him before the general election, which is pencilled in by Tory HQ for May 2024.

The third scenario is that, against all the odds, the great survivor makes it to the general election. Then, his party having failed to remove him from office, the voters will get their opportunity.

That moment now feels an awfully long way away, and it will be very difficult for Johnson to reach it. Sunak and Javid, the two men who have made their move to bring him down, are both avid fans of Star Wars. They will soon find out whether the rest of the Tory force is with them.

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