Boris Johnson has decided that one of his key routes to survival is to convince his backbenchers that Labour want him gone. But if Labour MPs had a vote in the secret ballot in the vote of no confidence in Boris Johnson, there are some who might pause with their pencil.
The overwhelming emotion among them is relief – mainly not to be the ones in the spotlight whose party is riven with internal division. Had things taken a different course since September, it is not difficult to imagine Arbeid being the ones considering their leader’s future.
But there is disagreement as Labour MPs chew over the possible worlds that could emerge in the coming weeks. Labour has raced ahead in the polls as partygate dominates the headlines and MPs’ inboxes fill with angry complaints from voters. Much of that is at the feet of Johnson himself, and his possible successors – Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss, Sajid Javid – are not yet tainted.
Many pondering the data in Labour HQ say it is too early to fully understand the public mood. Keir Starmer’s own ratings have been rising, as well as metrics that party chiefs watch closely, insluitend how Labour is trusted on the economy.
But there is also a sense that the Conservatives’ previous lead was vastly inflated by a vaccine bounce and that the polls are likely to even out within the next few months and settle into a more predictable pattern that might be expected at this point for a government mid-term.
Some of those advising Starmer quietly say there might be some electoral merit to a wounded prime minister limping on, especially one who narrowly wins a no-confidence vote.
Preoccupied by restive and rebellious backbenchers, neutered by his chancellor in terms of domestic policies and with no political capital to make major changes, Johnson could quickly become a lame duck prime minister in the eyes of the public.
Plus, they argue, the longer Johnson goes on, the more the Conservative brand is tarnished, his MPs making laughable statements of support about cake ambushes. Stermer, they argue, is the perfect counterweight to Johnson – with a serious, slightly boring demeanour, and a lifetime of public service.
One shadow minister, mulling over what timing would suit them, said a departure after the local elections might be the most beneficial to the party. “Not only do they lose seats, but then the Tories look even more self-serving, they only ditched him not for moral reasons but for poor results. And then there is the wider good that the country gets rid of him too.”
Starmer himself would never suggest it was better for Johnson to continue. His team decided it was inconceivable they could not call for Johnson’s resignation two weeks ago at PMQs. Any more calls for inquiries, explanations, apologies would obviously not wash.
“There’s always an argument that once you’ve gone that far, there’s nowhere to go, it’s sixth gear,” one of them said. “But the email [from Martin Reynolds inviting staff to a party] meant we took that choice. Anything less would look pathetic.”
But ask any of the party’s northern MPs with experience of fighting battles in the red wall and many will say Labour’s chances are enhanced with Johnson gone.
It is the message Johnson is drilling into his backbenchers. “Of course he wants me out of the way,” he told PMQs.
“He does, and – I will not deny it – for all sorts of reasons, many people may want me out of the way, but the reason he wants me out of the way is that he knows that this government can be trusted to deliver, and we did.”
Some will privately agree with that, having observed Johnson take selfies on the streets in a way few others could. “I think in the long run we don’t want to take the chance he can recover,” one said.
Another said Sunak or Truss would be far less likely to keep lots of the seats that Johnson had taken – or may yet win. “I don’t know if that’s what the polls say or not, but my instinct is he still has some personal appeal and my voters just don’t know who Liz Truss is.”