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Friday, May 27, 2022

Boris Johnson has fended off a leadership challenge … for now | Politics


One month ago, Boris Johnson’s premiership seemed to be in peril. “Coming into work felt like going to a funeral every day,” one No 10 aide recalled. “You could feel the guilt in the building from people who thought ‘we’ve let him down’.”

Faced with a trickle of Tory MPs openly calling for the prime minister to quit and a police investigation into lockdown parties, the politician who had always managed to wriggle free appeared this time to have no way out.

But after scrapping some of his top Downing Street advisers, charting a course to restore discipline in the party by overhauling the whips’ office in a mini reshuffle and with the respite of the indefinitely delayed Sue Gray report, Johnson has clung on.

More than that, though, he has won round some naysayers and sought to present himself as a Churchillian leader, given the war in Ukraine.

Tory MPs who previously privately briefed against him now rally to his defence. One declared him “a true hero in a crisis”. Another said: “Anyone making a move against him would not be in the spirit of the times.”

Barely a day passes where Johnson is not pictured meeting troops, foreign diplomats and leaders, constantly claiming that the UK is leading the international response to Russian aggression.

The headlines about Russia’s nuclear posturing, bombing of civilian buildings and the ensuing humanitarian crisis are drawing constant attention, meaning the momentum that was building for Johnson to quit has subsided quickly.

Another previously critical Tory MP confessed: “At the moment, it’s certainly working in our party’s favour.”

The arrival in Downing Street of David Canzini, an aide well respected among Tory MPs, has been viewed as a vote of confidence in Johnson.

Some members of the “pork pie plot” were spotted having dinner in one of the parliamentary restaurants at the start of the week. The public nature of their gathering was looked upon by government whips as a sign the private plotting had ceased.

“We missed our shot,” sighed one Tory backbencher. “I’ve gone about as far out on a limb as I can to get rid of him. The only person that can bring Boris down is Boris.”

Another admitted it was fanciful to think they could get 181 colleagues to vote against Johnson, even if they did somehow manage to get the 54 letters needed to trigger a confidence vote, should Johnson be fined by police.

The war has also placed an intense spotlight on the two ministers widely believed to be frontrunners in a Tory leadership race: the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and the foreign secretary, Liz Truss.

The response to Russian aggression has caused some to accuse the pair of not being quick or tough enough to respond with sanctions. A Whitehall insider said: “We keep saying we’re world-leading in this space, but we’re not any more.”

Some doubt that Johnson was ever even in real danger, considering he sustained no ministerial resignations – unlike Theresa May did in the run up to her departure.

But only one person who submitted a letter of no confidence in the prime minister has said they have withdrawn it, suggesting Johnson is not out of the woods completely.

“Especially at times of international crisis, it’s essential for leaders to be honest and have integrity,” a senior Tory MP said. “Until we hear from the Met and see Sue Gray’s full report, the jury is still out.”

Another said: “The fundamentals haven’t changed – that we can’t trust him and we don’t know what scandal is coming next.”

A former Tory No 10 adviser also warned Johnson was “on borrowed time” and “simply doesn’t have any room for mistakes or further embarrassment”.

There is also a danger point approaching: April’s local elections.

Given Labour’s lead in every national opinion poll since 8 December, a minister said they were “extremely nervous” about the Conservatives’ performance and that it was hard to see Johnson surviving if the party’s flagship Wandsworth council was lost.

Part of the reason Johnson appears safe for now is that the initial campaign to oust him was poorly organised. With MPs’ attention focused on Ukraine, there is even less coordination to keep up the pressure on him.

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