That was the number of Conservative MPs voting against the Prime Minister yesterday. A much higher figure than predicted and a very clear sign that unhappiness with him has spread to every wing of the Party. As William Hague so pithily put it in his article in The Times today, there was no planned and organised coup but rather MPs “had all come quietly, privately and separately to the conclusion that he had to go”.
But what next? Making bold predictions about what the future holds is a hazardous business, particularly for Boris Johnson whose powers of recovery have been demonstrated on countless occasions in the past.
The damage to his reputation is certainly significant. It was only last November that the Conservatives were still polling above 40%. Now YouGov shows the PM’s net favourability is at minus 45%. More bad news is on the way. Polling from James Johnson’s JL Partners shows the Tories losing the upcoming Wakefield by-election by 20 points. Most worrying for Boris is that the UK’s intervention in Ukraine in supplying military hardware and political support has had no impact on his ratings despite attracting widespread public support.
Recovering a damaged reputation is immensely difficult, if not in almost every case impossible. Just ask any senior politician or company Chief Executive who has taken a hit to their reputation. The CEO of P&O Ferries is only the latest leader who can attest to that.
It is also the widespread nature of the critique from fellow Conservatives that is problematic. Jesse Norman MP’s elegantly crafted letter for example criticised plans to privatise Channel 4, breach the Northern Ireland Protocol, and deport refugees to Rwanda. But there are plenty of MPs who are strong supporters of these policies or would go further – for example with tougher anti-immigration measures. Any attempt by the PM to “move on” by introducing policies and initiatives is therefore fraught with danger that could alienate even more MPs including some who backed him on this occasion.
Worse still, the economic outlook is darkening by the day with high inflation, flat-lining growth and a cost-of-living crisis that is going to cause genuine economic hardship for millions in the year ahead. Boris is therefore doomed, right? Support will seep away further over the coming weeks as the economy worsens, criticisms of the PM over Partygate continue (with the Privileges Committee report another hazardous moment in the Autumn), and further byelection losses confirm the PM’s unpopularity. At some point, there is another vote of confidence and this time, the 148 becomes 180 plus. There are plenty of arguments for this scenario becoming inevitable.
But but but. There are three factors that play in the PM’s favour.
First, events. If the last two years of our country’s history holds a lesson for the future, it is that unexpected events can dramatically upturn what looks inevitable. Who knows what lies ahead? Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner could both be forced to resign; Russia could lose the war in Ukraine; a new COVID variant could emerge; the economy could fall into deep recession. All or any of these could strengthen or weaken Boris Johnson’s position. And the PM is not a passive spectator in this process – the Government has the power to make big decisions that can have a big impact.
Second, resilience. It takes an enormous amount of resilience – the ability to continuously bounce back from adversity – to be Prime Minister. From having to defend the Government’s record at
PMQs to the almost daily media interviews to campaigning in elections, a Prime Minister requires huge resilience and Boris Johnson has this in abundance.
Third. Process and time. While William Hague’s Times piece urged the PM to find a way to exit voluntarily, he did not identify the exact mechanism by which he would be forced to leave office. Of course, the 1922 Committee could change the rules to allow another leadership challenge this year or some Ministers could resign to force his hand. But none of that is inevitable and once Parliament goes into Recess in five weeks’ time, the PM is safe until the Autumn. There is a narrow path – a strong economic bounce back, Russian defeat in Ukraine, energy price falls – that could lead to a partial recovery in his poll ratings that might even be enough to see him into 2023 and through to the next General Election.
That might look unlikely in the days after the leadership challenge. But his ending was predicted six months ago, and the PM is still in No. 10 today.