Boris Johnson could face leadership challenge in days

Tally of 54 letters of no-confidence could be reached by Monday, sources say

Prime Minister Boris Johnson at Queen Elizabeth's Buckingham Palace jubilee party on Saturday as a leadership challenge may be brewing. Photo: Reuters
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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's leadership faces a growing crisis, with reports that he may face a challenge from within his own party in days.

The Conservative leader could face a vote of no confidence as early as Monday when Parliament returns as the Partygate scandal undermines his position.

There are reports that the 54 letters required from fellow MP Conservative MPs demanding a leadership vote have been received by the party and Mr Johnson could be tested as early as Wednesday.

Even if he wins that by getting 180 colleagues to vote for him, the votes against him could undermine his leadership.

Focus is also shifting to possible successors, with those outside his Cabinet circle appearing to edge ahead.

If the vote does not take place this week, then it will probably come shortly after two by-elections in Conservative seats on June 23. Polling on Sunday showed those were likely to be lost.

It is clear that Mr Johnson has not pushed aside the criticisms from last month's report by senior civil servant Sue Grey into lockdown rule breaking parties at Downing Street.

His obfuscation of events, possibly misleading Parliament, and his fine for breaking health rules appear to have created momentum among dissatisfied Conservative MPs.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his wife, Carrie, at St Paul's Cathedral for Queen Elizabeth's jubilee celebrations. Mr Johnson was booed while entering the church. Reuters

Members from all factions in the parliamentary party are understood to have submitted letters to Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee that oversees leadership contests.

One tally of letters — that can be submitted by email or WhatsApp — put the number at 67. There are suggestions Mr Brady is holding back on an announcement until Queen Elizabeth II's platinum jubilee celebrations are over.

Mr Johnson's authority has been crumbling in recent days, with former Brexit supporter Andrea Leadsom last week condemning the “unacceptable failures of leadership” following Partygate.

Ms Leadsom, a former Cabinet minister, hinted at submitting a letter, and more could follow after a rough weekend for the prime minister when he was booed on his way to a jubilee thanksgiving service at St Paul's Cathedral on Friday.

On Sunday, a poll by JL Partners suggested that Labour was 20 points clear of the Conservatives in the Wakefield by-election, and that the Liberal Democrats would take Tiverton and Honiton, considered a safe Tory seat, on June 23.

One Conservative insider put the chances of a no-confidence vote at 50 per cent this week and 80 per cent following the by-elections.

MPs and voters have been most angered by the breach of rules in Downing Street at a time when people were locked down in their homes and thousands were dying from Covid-19.

A long-standing point in favour of Mr Johnson’s survivability has been that there is no one with his charisma and proven election-winning ability to lead the Conservatives.

But poor polling coupled with possibility of losing the 24,000 majority in Tiverton and Honiton would mean Conservative MPs no longer see Mr Johnson as the leader with the ability to help them to retain their seats.

If he resigns or is pushed out, there will be a power struggle between the right-wing Brexiteers and centrist One Nation Tories over who becomes the UK's next prime minister.

Leading the latter is Jeremy Hunt, the runner-up to Mr Johnson in the 2019 leadership race, someone who could wash away the scandal that has tainted the party.

Another, similar, candidate is former soldier Tom Tugendhat, who is in favour with fellow MPs and has shown competence and flair as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

However, Mr Tugendhat lacks ministerial experience.

Those in Mr Johnson’s Cabinet may struggle to shake off the loss of authority and reputation in continuing to serve under a prime minister who has disobeyed the rules.

Until his own lockdown fine and questions over his wife’s tax status, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak was regarded as a shoo-in replacement. His star has faded considerably in recent months, but he still cannot be written off.

Liz Truss, Foreign Secretary, is another potential runner although she has not particularly endeared herself to voters or fellow MPs.

With his leadership abilities demonstrated during the Ukraine war, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace could well push aside other Cabinet members as a continuity candidate.

Similarly, the Iraq-born Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, is regarded as a capable and skillful politician.

The other candidate with chance of getting the top job is former defence secretary Penny Mordaunt, who is a trade minister, although she is not thought to have much support among MPs.

To become prime minister, the candidates will undergo a series of ballots among their fellow 359 Conservative MPs until they are whittled down to a final pair.

Then, the 200,000 paid-up members of the Conservative Party will vote on who will become their leader and hence prime minister.

Updated: June 05, 2022, 1:37 PM