Can the Tories win a general election without Boris Johnson?

A vote on the prime minister’s future could be closer than ever after his own ethics adviser has threatened to quit over rule-breaking Downing Street parties. 

Christopher Geidt, the independent adviser on ministerial interests, wrote to the prime minister on Tuesday saying there was a “legitimate question” over whether he broke the ministerial code, reported The Times

And Johnson isn’t facing anger only from his ethics advisor; some 41 MPs are now openly questioning the prime minister’s suitability for leadership, while 28 are calling for him to stand down, according to Sky News’s Tom Larkin.

The “consensus among both Tory MPs and political journalists” is that the much-cited threshold of 54 letters submitted by Conservative MPs calling for a vote of no confidence in the prime minister may already have been reached, and so it is “plausible we are heading for a confidence vote next week”, said Politico’s London Playbook

Reputation as a vote winner

According to polling from ConservativeHome, Johnson’s current rating within his own party grassroots members has slid into negative double digits at -15, making him the least-popular serving member of the cabinet. His all-time low was -34 in December 2021, when the reports of parties in Downing Street and Whitehall first hit the headlines. 

But despite the possibility of a confidence vote looming, working in Johnson’s favour is his reputation as a vote winner. One ally told the Financial Times that Johnson’s “argument to the party is simple: he’s never lost a national election”. 

“Against all the odds, he won London twice, the EU referendum and the 2019 election. Do you really want to swap him out for someone who has zero track record of winning an election?” the source added.

But there might soon be holes in this argument, as two critical by-elections in Wakefield and Tiverton approach in June. The Guardian reported that “some MPs suggest Johnson might prefer to face a quick vote next week” rather than after the by-elections in which they are expected to “struggle”. 

The ballots are “seen by backbenchers as critical tests of Johnson’s popularity” in two very “different types of constituencies”. If they lost both, or saw significant swings away from them, it would “strongly reinforce the sense that he has become an electoral liability”.

But Johnson’s confidence in his electoral pull seemingly hasn’t waned. The Guardian reported that he has threatened his critics with the possibility of a snap election, warning them that “if they tried to move against him, he would trigger an early poll and let the public decide if he should keep his job”.

Chances at the next election 

Cabinet ministers were rounding on “reckless” Tory rebels last night, with allies warning plotters that they could “destroy the Conservative Party’s best chance of winning the next election” if they remove Johnson from Downing Street, according to the Daily Mail.

Johnson backers accused rebel MPs of “doing Labour’s bidding” with one Cabinet source dismissing those moving against the prime minister as having “no plan” and made up of “disgruntled ex-ministers and a couple of frit 2019ers”. 

“He has the weight and will to get through this – and you have to ask yourself: where is the genuine alternative? It simply isn’t there,” one senior source told PoliticsHome. “Despite the stormy seas, he is still the leader best equipped to defeat Starmer at the next election.”

Yet YouGov polling shows that the Conservative Party are on track for a loss when the country next goes to the polls. The latest voting intention figures show Labour has an eight-point lead over the Tories with 39% of the vote, while the Conservatives trail with 31%, down two points from mid-May.

No ‘suitable alternative’

In any case, ousting a prime minister is “just one side of the coin”, said Forbes. The “devilish question bothering would-be Tory dagger wielders” is who would replace him, and many “aren’t convinced that there’s a suitable alternative waiting in the wings”.

There could still be a “silent majority” of backbenchers “resigned to sitting on their hands, hoping the Sue Gray report will slip from memory as other matters – not least the cost-of-living crisis – take precedence”.

The Times reported that Tory rebels are actively discussing potential successors, including Penny Mordaunt, the former defence secretary who is being presented as a “compromise candidate” who could unite a fraying party. But Mordaunt, “who is particularly popular among Scottish Conservative MPs” has said she is “loyal” to Johnson. 

Other names floated by rebels include Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary, and Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, as well as cabinet minister Ben Wallace, who is the defence secretary, and Liz Truss, the foreign secretary.

Rishi Sunak, once lauded as Johnson’s natural successor, is considered to be “diminished” following reports of his wife’s non-dom tax status, but “some believe there is time for him to recover”. 


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