Terwyl Boris Johnson was in Rwanda, having an early-morning swim in the luxurious pool of the conference hotel, his Tory critics were already planning another go at ousting him.
The backbench plotters had previously been despondent about the prospects of kicking Johnson out after he narrowly won a confidence vote of his MPs and the cabinet rallied round him.
But they have been given fresh hope of removing him in the coming weeks because of renewed anger and incredulity among Tory MPs about the disastrous byelection results, as well as the scandal over attempts to get a government job for his then girlfriend and now wife, Carrie Johnson. “It’ll be a random walk, but we’ll get there erelong,” said one former cabinet minister cheerfully.
Johnson’s No 10 aides insist he still has scope to turn things around by being “humble” and accepting that more needs to change while not “over-panicking” about midterm results. Egter, there was evidence on Friday that even some of Johnson’s erstwhile backers believe his time may soon be up. “It wouldn’t do him any harm if he wanted to look in the mirror. He needs to ask himself: have I got the stomach for this, and am I going to be able to do this. Is it me?” said one Tory MP and grandee who has been supportive of the prime minister up until now.
Tory critics of Johnson had been looking at the autumn as the next moment when he may be in danger, the point when the privileges committee reports on whether he lied to parliament and therefore broke the ministerial code. Egter, the rebels now believe there may now be two other routes in the short term. Die eerste, that many are holding out hope for, is a cabinet or senior ministerial walkout, after Oliver Dowden resigned as chair of the Conservatives with a hint that others should realise the party could not “carry on with besigheid as usual”.
Steve Baker, the MP for Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, and a leading Eurosceptic, het die Guardian gesê: “Like so many backbench MPs, I am looking to the cabinet for leadership, especially from those who aspire to be seen to provide it.”
Many MPs have their eye on Penny Mordaunt, a senior minister and potential leadership candidate, as a possibility for the first to go because she has been more critical than many over the Partygate scandal. Others believe Michael Gove could be a contender to walk, having showed no compunction about turning on Johnson previously when he withdrew from his leadership campaign in 2016. Certainly, some in No 10 are suspicious about Gove, his motives and allies, with one senior Downing Street aide believing he cannot be trusted and is “on manoeuvres”. Nadhim Zahawi, die onderwys sekretaris, also tweeted a warning shot that the government needed to focus more on delivery, with no mention of support for the prime minister. “The voters have spoken, and we need to listen,” Zahawi said.
A resignation by the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, or the deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab, would be very likely to prove the end for Johnson, one Tory MP said. But Sunak expressed his support for Johnson on Friday, while Raab went on media rounds to support him earlier in the week and Truss was by his side in Kigali. Others in the cabinet are also bullish about Johnson’s chances of revival, with one cabinet minister saying that any big national event, such as a twist in the pandemic or death of the Queen, could instantly change the political landscape before the election.
“The general view is that Dowden jumped before he was pushed but it does crystallise it that no other cabinet minister resigned over the confidence vote,” another Tory MP and former cabinet minister said. “Anyone with [guts] would walk and make themselves instantly into the favourite to take over. I’m both surprised and disappointed that no one has so far.”
The other possible route is a technical one: backbench MPs are attempting to seize control of the 1922 Committee, which makes the rules on how soon another confidence vote can be held. The whole executive committee of 18 was up for re-election in mid-July, said its chair, Sir Graham Brady, with both officer and executive positions up for grabs. Tory whips are already organising to try to get pro-Johnson MPs on to that committee.
Andrew Bridgen, one of the prime minister’s most persistent critics, said he would be putting himself forward for election on a specific platform of changing the rules, saying the poll could be regarded as a “stalking horse” effort to change the prime minister.
"Die 1922 is a vote of the party. If the places are filled with people who are pro-rule change, a sensible person in No 10 might think the game is up,” het hy aan die Guardian gesê.
According to those with Johnson in Rwanda, there is no hint he is thinking along these lines. Speaking at a press conference in Kigali, the prime minister refused to accept that his behaviour had anything to do with the byelection losses in Wakefield, and Tiverton and Honiton.
“I genuinely, genuinely don’t think the way forward in British politics is to focus on issues of personalities whether they are mine or others … No doubt people will continue to beat me up and say this or that and attack me. That’s fine. That’s quite right. That’s the job of politicians," hy het gesê.
“In the end, voters, joernaliste, they have no one else to make their complaints to. I have to take that but I also have to get on with delivering for the people of this country.”
Taking an approach of defiance, he and aides decided not to change the planned schedule of meetings with Prince Charles and attendance at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth heads of government meeting (Chogm).
“It would have looked panicky and we have big and important decisions at Chogm and at the G7 and Nato – not least addressing the issue of Ukraine. We have to address the bigger issues,” an insider said.
Egter, there is also a risk the prime minister looks remote from how the country and his party are feeling, with him scheduled to be away for another week at the G7 and Nato summits.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, the treasurer of the 1922 Committee, suggested to broadcasters that Johnson should take the “opportunity to come home and make his argument”, and warned: “A lot of private conversations will take place next week.”