Another Partygate inquiry, two byelections, a possible reshuffle … life isn’t about to get any easier for the PM
Boris Johnson is safe – for now. Under Conservative party rules, his win by 211 votes to 148 in a no-confidence vote of Tory MPs means he will not face a similar challenge for 12 months. But life is not necessarily about to become much easier for the prime minister, for a number of reasons. Here are the main challenges ahead.
Two crunch byelections
Any post-vote mini-honeymoon Johnson may potentially enjoy could end with a crash on 23 June, when voters in Wakefield and in Tiverton and Honiton vote in byelections to replace disgraced Conservative MPs; one who departed after a sexual assault conviction, the other for watching pornography in the Commons.
It is widely predicted that Labour will win back Wakefield, a seat it held before 2019, and that the Liberal Democrats could very well triumph in Tiverton and Honiton, despite the Tories’ near-25,000 majority. Conservative MPs are already worried that a tarnished Johnson is no longer a vote winner. Proof of this could come very soon.
Yet another Partygate inquiry
The Sue Gray report was not the end of the story. As well as simmering backbench unrest about his conduct in lockdown, Johnson also faces an inquiry by the cross-party Commons privileges committee into whether he misled parliament in repeatedly insisting he knew nothing about illicit social events.
The inquiry is expected to last months, and the findings could be inconclusive. But, should Johnson survive in office that long, a definitive conclusion that the PM did mislead parliament could finally push him out.
Cost of living/new policies
Johnson has billed the vote as a chance to “get on with the job”. But with 9% inflation, millions pushed into energy insecurity and a likely poverty crunch point in the autumn, the job itself is no easier. Johnson and his chancellor, Rishi Sunak, are due to make a joint speech next week on the next moves, but after Sunak committed £15bn to new measures less than a fortnight ago, any measures outlined are likely to be largely aspirational.
Similarly, it feels a bit as if the new policy cupboard is getting sparse. Johnson’s first expected post-vote speech, pencilled in for Thursday, is expected to be on housing, and plans to extend the right-to-buy scheme to tenants of housing associations – a controversial idea first raised in the 2015 Conservative manifesto.
A possible reshuffle
While No 10 insisted on Tuesday that this is “not planned”, the traditional way to mark a post-crisis prime ministerial reset is to move some ministers around, and particularly to shore up support among wavering MPs by offering low-level government jobs.
Even this, however, is notable for its perils, most particularly when it involves shunting ministers sideways or downwards. Priti Patel, the home secretary, was notable in not tweeting support for Johnson in Monday’s vote, and is understood to be very reluctant to be moved from being home secretary, as is widely mooted.
Courting Tory malcontents
This is perhaps the most impassable hurdle of all for prime ministers on the slide. It is a notable psychological barrier for MPs to decide they want to oppose their leader, and coming back from that is not easy, unless you are Douglas Ross.
It is nonetheless traditional for PMs in Johnson’s position to say they will listen and reach out. But it is striking that the language from the PM and No 10 since the vote has been all about ploughing on, and more of the same. This risks entrenching positions.
A change to party rules
This is possibly the biggest threat to Johnson in practical terms. While his victory on Monday theoretically buys a year’s grace, Johnson will know very well that the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, which makes the rules on challenges, can very easily change them.
Theresa May won her no-confidence vote in December 2018 with a better margin than Johnson, but within months had to offer a timetable for departure after MPs raised the threat of a rule change. The rules are not made public – supposedly only one copy exists, in the care of the committee chair, Sir Graham Brady – and amending them could be done swiftly.
Ennui and the lure of an easier life
Johnson might be habitually portrayed as supremely ambitious and power-hungry, but the reality is more complex, not least his very obvious desire to be liked. His boosterism makes him a prime minister much more suited to the good times, the ascent, than to decline, bickering and political death by a thousand cuts.
It may be unlikely, but it is not impossible that at some point in the coming months, as the tumult of hostile MPs’ voices grows louder, that he simply decides to announce a departure date, quits as an MP and settles down to finally finish his book on Shakespeare and earn vast sums amid the more forgiving crowds of the lecture circuit.