5 February 2022 | ANALYSIS
By all conventional accounts, Boris Johnson should be finished.
After plunging the United Kingdom into several liberty-restricting lockdowns, the Prime Minister has been found to have attended several booze-infused gatherings at Number 10.
As a consequence, Mr Johnson has not only lost the Tories’ their lead in the opinion polls but also found himself trailing Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party by as much as 10 points.
To make matters worse, backbench Conservative MPs, who have often been described as both the most intelligent and deceitful electorate in the world, are now starting to turn on their leader.
At the last check, 13 Tory MPs had publicly announced they had submitted votes of no confidence in Mr Johnson – 41 short of the 54 needed to bring forward a vote against the Prime Minister.
However, insiders believe the total number of letters sent to 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady could be as high as 44.
Fortunately for the Prime Minister, and in keeping with most recent rebel plots inside the Conservative Party, Mr Johnson’s ‘PartyGate’ detractors appear to have overestimated their support.
When Andrew Bridgen, once a Johnson disciple, wielded the knife by calling for the Prime Minister to quit on GB News, he appeared to jump the gun when he warned that Mr Johnson would face a leadership challenge the following day.
Almost three weeks have passed since then and the Prime Minister remains in place, albeit by the skin of his teeth.
For many MPs, the Sue Gray report was supposed to be the final nail in Mr Johnson’s political coffin.
However, despite concluding there were “failures of leadership and judgement” inside Number 10 and the Cabinet Office, the civil servant’s ‘PartyGate’ report has so far not been enough to topple the Prime Minister.
One Tory MP, who said the Sue Gray report was “critical” before its publication, has since changed tack, saying: “We just have to wait for the Met”.
So, why is Mr Johnson still the Tory leader?
To the Prime Minister’s credit, he has put up some almighty performances when they have been needed most.
Following the defection of Bury South MP Christian Wakeford, Mr Johnson had arguably one of his best dispatch box displays since entering Number 10.
One Conservative MP said: “Tory MPs don’t like turncoats and that, combined with Boris’ robust performance at Prime Minister’s Questions, has certainly boosted support for the PM.”
Even after what was considered by many to be a disastrous response to the Gray report in the Commons, Mr Johnson managed to fend off further criticism during a meeting with the 1922 Committee.
A Tory MP in the room said: “The meeting was very positive and the PM got the mood right and showed more of the old Boris from 2019.”
“After a difficult day, I think overall many MPs were happy with what they heard,” they added.
But there is another factor which is much more important than that.
In December 2019, Mr Johnson did something no other Conservative MP could do.
In fact, Mr Johnson did something no other Conservative leader had achieved since Margaret Thatcher in 1987.
He overcame the odds, a parliamentary paralysis and a polarised nation to deliver the Tory Party a thumping majority and deliver on his commitment to ‘Get Brexit Done’.
But Johnson, an electoral asset to the Conservative Party for more than a decade, may now have become a liability.
A total of 1,084 voters spoilt their ballots in Thursday’s by-election in Southend West, with one resident even writing: “Boris, do a Brexit – get out!”
Mr Johnson also carried the can for the Conservatives’ defeat in the once-safe seat of North Shropshire, when the Liberal Democrats won the race to succeed the disgraced former Northern Ireland Secretary and then Environment Secretary Owen Paterson.
However, even at a moment when the Prime Minister is more unpopular than ever, Tory MPs cannot be sure that a successor would fare any better.
As one ex-Red Wall staffer put it: “They know that Boris is their best chance of re-election.”
The staffer added: “He was the man that turned communities blue for the first time in generations, and Rishi Sunak doesn’t work in the Red Wall, Liz Truss doesn’t work in the Red Wall and Jeremy Hunt certainly doesn’t work in the Red Wall.”
Polling on how leadership contenders would fare has been few and far between.
However, a Redfield & Wilton survey found that Chancellor Rishi Sunak would only perform slightly better than the sleaze-stricken Prime Minister in the Red Wall.
No other Tory MP, including Johnson’s 2019 leadership rival and former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, were polled anywhere near the two Brexiteers.
To bolster his own support, Mr Johnson could certainly consider readopting the ‘Vote Leave conservatism’ that got him into Number 10 in the first place.
This may be the only way the Prime Minister could hope to rebuild his otherwise eroding Brexit-backing coalition of voters and fulfil his ambition to remain in Downing Street until 2029.
But Mr Johnson’s decision not to axe VAT on energy, as he promised in the 2016 referendum, along with his determination to keep in place the 12 percent ‘green levies’, will not help abate the current cost of living crisis.
However, even with the Prime Minister on the ropes, one is still left wondering whether we could see Mr Johnson pull off just one more remarkable comeback.
The chances seem slim, and a leadership challenge would most likely topple the Prime Minister, but perhaps it is still not wise to bet against Mr Johnson seeing off the threat.