Why the Cabinet, not Tory rebels, holds the key to ending Boris Johnson’s premiership

It may not be long before Boris Johnson sends a letter to Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of Conservative MPs, demanding that Boris Johnson be put to a vote of no confidence. Johnson is unlikely to blame himself for giving the impression that the Conservative Party no longer respects British institutions. He could, however, conclude that if a vote of no confidence is to take place, it might as well happen sooner rather than later.

For months, Conservative MPs have claimed they are about to change leaders. Trigger points have been variously defined and dropped. First, they were all waiting for Sue Gray’s report, which was then delayed. The Prime Minister was fined by the Metropolitan Police instead, but this was not seen as sufficient pretext for action. Then they all waited for local elections, which came and went with poor results for the Conservative party but more indecision on the question of leadership. Gray has now signaled and, although there has been a trickle of new rebels afterward, the majority of MPs are still waiting, Micawber-style.

The Prime Minister and his team had assumed that, with Parliament not sitting, the appetite for conspiracy would diminish. But a mix of constituency pressure and WhatsApp ploys made it a genuine hope. Scattered around the country, Tory MPs are finding out for themselves what every opinion poll has also been telling them for weeks – that Johnson’s lockdown shenanigans are going to cost them their seats. They then embrace instant communication channels and embolden themselves by talking to other MPs who find the same thing where they are. A Prime Minister whose only claim to the loyalty of many of them is that he is a winner has lost his golden touch. If Johnson isn’t seen by his team as a winner, he’s in trouble because he has no reserve of affection to draw on.

People close to the action say a vote of confidence is now a matter of when rather than if. Unless something significant changes in the meantime, Johnson is more likely to win than lose such a vote. Every Conservative prime minister in recent memory who has faced a vote of confidence from their MPs has gone on to win. In November 1990, Margaret Thatcher defeated Michael Heseltine by 204 votes to 152, just four votes less than the 15% margin of victory then required in the first round. In July 1995, after years of acrimony over the Maastricht Treaty and the future of the European Union, John Major forced and won a leadership race in which he beat John Redwood by 218 votes to 89. December 2018, Theresa May won a vote of confidence. by 200 votes to 117. The payroll vote – all ministers who owe their careers to the prime minister – won, as it had won for Thatcher and Major.

[See also: The Conservative Party is lost]

Yet none of them were winners for long. Thatcher had every right, as the winner of the first vote, to advance to the second round, but she was persuaded not to. Major came across the 1997 general election in which his party was badly beaten. May’s victory was followed by the Conservatives’ humiliating defeat in the European elections (they finished fifth with 8.8% of the vote) and she quickly agreed to set a date for her departure.

There are two lessons for the present moment in these examples. The first is to look at the percentage. Thatcher won 55% of the vote, Major 66% and May 63%. Major was deemed to have won and survived the process. Thatcher’s and May’s victories were seen as disguised defeats, and they quickly disappeared. Proponents of other possible candidates in the field are already saying that 63% is the minimum acceptable pass mark. If Johnson falls below the percentage of votes obtained in May, they argue, then he must surely leave.

The second lesson, however, complements the first. None of the former Tory leaders just packed up and left. The vote itself never did the trick. Thatcher declined to participate in the second round because most of her cabinet told her in a series of private meetings that she no longer had their support. Major was, in due course, expelled by the electorate. May was kicked out because it became apparent that she, too, had lost the trust of her more senior colleagues. In other words, backbenchers can use the airwaves to express their displeasure all they want, but it’s out of their hands. All their noise can do is provide a signal.

Let’s imagine that, this time, we have more than the usual bluster. Suppose there is a vote of no confidence and Johnson wins it and receives precisely 62% of the vote. So what? Johnson himself will not back down. A one-vote win will do. Echoing Thatcher, expect him in these circumstances to fight, fight to win. Either a cabal of senior colleagues – led by a Rishi Sunak or a Michael Gove – tell him to leave, or Johnson will waver to meet the electorate. MPs are in the news today, but it is not about them. Eventually, this pathetic spectacle will have to be ended by those who really hold the power.

[See also: Tony Blair’s new centrist project shows he and his acolytes have learnt nothing]

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