When the former Downing Street pollster James Johnson ran a focus group on “partygate” in the red wall seat of Bolton North East, the feedback wasn’t exactly encouraging for No 10.
Some of the disparaging comments from those voters who backed the Tories for the first time in 2019 included: “I think he’s completely lost everyone’s trust”, “he needs to resign” and “I don’t really see how he can carry on”. When people were asked whether they would vote for Boris Johnson nou, not a single person put their hand up.
That reaction won’t come as much of a surprise to Tory MPs in Westminster after a weekend in their constituencies. While the prime minister and his team have tried to win over the parliamentary party with regular trips to the tearoom and “Operation Red Meat”, which aims to please the base with rightwing policies, the charm offensive is yet to work on the grassroots.
“It’s bleak,” says one loyalist MP. The problem is it is not the usual suspects. In plaas daarvan, “it’s our core base”, according to someone on the government payroll. New revelations on Friday that No 10 staff were partying on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral have driven many MPs to distraction. As one points out, members of their associations often belong to other community organisations and take an extremely dim view of lax attitudes to the rules.
“There is something almost impressive about managing to piss off absolutely every group of society,” observes a former adviser. In the face of criticism from even usually supportive newspapers, MPs are discovering new coping mechanisms. One senior Tory had a media blackout at the weekend – the complaints from his constituents were enough.
Yet for all the anger, it’s still unclear how Johnson would actually go. MPs fall roughly into two camps: those who want him out before the local elections and those who think he ought to be given until then to turn things around.
The group most eager to see the back of the prime minister is made up of those who have council seats up for grabs in May. Candidates are talking of dropping out and are warning of electoral oblivion. In order to avoid this fate, they argue that a new leader is required at the national level.
They are backed by longtime Johnson critics, Scottish Tories and increasingly MPs in Liberal Democrat/Tory marginals. Given the Liberal Democrats managed to overturn chunky Conservative majorities in the Chesham and Amersham and North Shropshire byelections, this group don’t feel as though they need to wait until May.
Egter, many MPs believe Johnson will cling on until then – bar no new damaging disclosures. Eerste, the next Tory leadership contest will not be a tidy affair; there is no unity candidate. The two frontrunners, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, have their supporters – but also ample critics. Already a “Stop Truss” contingent is forming – MPs keen to either keep Johnson in place to avoid this fate or to work to stop the foreign secretary reaching the membership in any contest. Given she is a grassroots favourite, they view it as too risky to have her in the final two.
With potential candidates being tipped to run including the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, former defence minister Penny Mordaunt, the chair of the foreign affairs select committee, Tom Tugendhat, and former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, the contest is already looking rather crowded. “To get to 54 letters and then start and complete a leadership contest between now and April is overly ambitious,” says a member of the government.
There are also self-serving reasons ministers are keen to put off a contest. The mantra “he who wields the knife never wears the crown” is weighing heavily on contenders. Such a move could lead to a backlash among Johnson loyalists and make an entry in a leadership contest more difficult. “A lot of colleagues want him to take us into the local elections and let the public vote on him,” says someone on the payroll. “It’s a neater way of doing things.” Another MP argues that those activists who support Johnson need to see proof that he is no longer an electoral asset.
But that calculation could change. While the fact there is no obvious successor is helping Johnson stay in position, things could get so bad that MPs ultimately decide it’s best to get rid of the problem then work on the solution afterwards.
While Downing Street aides are optimistic he will survive Sue Gray’s report, MPs will be carefully studying his reaction. Johnson’s falling poll ratings suggest many voters have already made up their minds – any more denying reality or making excuses will feed into the very complaints that were raised in that Bolton focus group.
The issue for the prime minister is that the partygate crisis is not yet a Conservative-wide scandal, it’s a Boris Johnson scandal. If MPs conclude they need to move fast in order to stop it contaminating the whole Tory brand permanently, he will be out sooner rather than later – even if the question of who will succeed him remains up in the air.