Senior Conservatives fear that, whether the PM stays or goes, the opinion poll deficit is not now recoverable
It’s supposed to be make-up-your-mind time for Conservative MPs. But having waited six months for Sue Gray’s report into law-breaking parties across Westminster, many are still grappling with whether to clear Boris Johnson’s path to the next general election – or oust the man who won them an 80-seat majority.
What is already clear is that boastful proclamations from Johnson’s supporters this week claiming the prime minister’s position was safe have proved premature. The drip of no confidence letters has continued, while dozens have kept their silence as they consider following suit next week.
And there remains significant unease that the slump in the opinion polls is not recoverable given that a Tory lead has not been recorded since 6 December.
“We’re going to lose and we deserve it,” one minister sighed, reflecting on the path ahead. “We’re on our way out.”
Talk of the 54 letters needed to trigger a vote on Johnson’s premiership has bubbled up again, and on Friday Johnson suffered the first resignation since the Gray report: Paul Holmes quit as a ministerial aide to the home secretary with a jibe at “the toxic culture that seemed to have permeated No 10”.
With only three people having publicly confirmed that they rescinded their letters of no confidence when the Ukraine war began, the prime minister’s position is far from stable. One MP who is no enemy of Johnson’s acknowledged: “I think he’s in more danger now than he was on Wednesday.”
Government figures hope that the chancellor’s multibillion-pound support package to soften the blow of spiralling food and energy costs will help shore up support. But many Conservative MPs are frustrated at being forced into a U-turn again – this time on the implementation of a windfall tax.
And fiscal conservatives are especially frustrated at Sunak’s insistence that he is a low-tax chancellor, while simultaneously announcing a 25% levy on oil and gas firms’ profits and withholding promised tax cuts, possibly until the next general election.
The move saw him accused by Tory MP Richard Drax of “throwing red meat to socialists” and left another, Craig Mackinlay, “disappointed, embarrassed and appalled that a Conservative chancellor could come up with this tripe”.
Others privately complained that it was “appallingly bad” and demonstrated that “we have no narrative”.
Robert Hayward, a Tory peer and polling expert, told the Guardian there was “a sense within the party at large – not just the parliamentary party – of malaise and drift”.
“I fear a slow and painful death of this government,” said one frontbencher. “He’s caused so many problems, we can’t even talk about the real issues of the day to begin to tackle them.” They described the situation as “depressing and embarrassing”.
“By far the biggest issue is the sense that the government is now tiring and disjointed,” said another.
New modelling from YouGov has found that of 88 “battleground” constituencies the party took from Labour at the last election, or currently holds with a majority of less than 15 points, just three would remain in Conservative hands. Among those that could swing red is Johnson’s own seat in west London.
On Partygate, the government’s anti-corruption tsar, John Penrose, crystallised the conundrum faced by those who hoped it would deliver a more stinging verdict and are now waiting for the privileges committee to begin its investigation into whether Johnson misled parliament.
Quizzed on whether the PM should quit, Penrose said: “Forgive me, I’m still thinking about that, so I’m going to sleep on that. But it’s because it [the Gray report] hasn’t put the issue to bed one way or another.
“It could be months, and … one of the reasons I’m sounding so angry and frustrated is that I was expecting us to be able to have a crystallised answer now, and we haven’t flipping got it.”
But some now feel able to judge more lucidly the severity of the situation – and certain opponents of Johnson smell blood.
They have been offering to deliver colleagues’ letters, and sense an opportunity over the upcoming recess to nudge waverers over the line because they believe Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers, would not alert Johnson if the threshold was reached while the Commons was not sitting.
The number of people who have publicly called on Johnson to face a vote is halfway to 54 and several MPs intimated to the Guardian that they have submitted a letter privately. Some who have never done so before are asking how to do it discreetly.
“No 10 is utterly delusional if they think this has gone away. It just hasn’t,” said a waverer who claimed that their inbox was piling up with outraged emails – not from “the usual bitchy people, but people we’ve never heard of and Conservative members”.
Another said they wished the prime minister had received a second Partygate fine from police, to provide enough cover for them to submit a letter.
But opponents of Johnson admit it is still a struggle to get enough colleagues to move against him, given the unpredictable nature of the leadership contest that could follow and the lack of appetite for either Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss.
“It’s harder to get to 54 than 180 in some ways,” one noted, comparing the number needed to trigger a no-confidence vote and the number needed to win it.
Johnson’s get-out in February, when his position was most perilous over Partygate and a failure to deliver Conservative policies, was the war in Ukraine. But the argument might not hold if the conflict continues for months or years.
“People need to wake up and start realising we don’t need another Churchill,” a Tory rebel said. “We just need something better than Boris.”