How Boris Johnson is relying on short memories to stay in Downing Street

With their leader on international duties for a week, high-ranking Tories question if he should remain Britain's prime minister

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting at Kigali Convention Centre in Rwanda. Getty Images
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One positive Boris Johnson can take from Friday’s by-election defeats is that he cannot be challenged for the Conservative Party leadership until next June.

The British prime minister also has the opportunity over the next eight days to exude charm and shine on the world stage at important international summits in Rwanda, Bavaria and Madrid.

Close advisers will suggest the loss of two seats has always been “priced in” as setbacks, and once he arrives home next Friday the images will be of a global leader and that public amnesia – Mr Johnson’s greatest hope for survival and success – will kick in.

But that’s just about it for the positives. There is a lot for the Conservatives and their current leader to contemplate.

The Tories were prepared to lose Wakefield, as well as Tiverton and Honiton, but it’s the scale of loss that will eat away at Boris loyalists.

Only 68 Conservatives have seats that are safer than the 24,000 majority they once held in Tiverton, giving the other 291 colleagues a shakier view of holding onto their £84,000 a year job.

From that total of 359 MPs on June 2, 148 stated they had no confidence in Mr Johnson’s leadership. If there was a vote tomorrow the dissenters could well swell to the point that the prime minster would be out.

Those who triggered the confidence vote in early June may well be lamenting that they should have held fire until today. The impetus of losing a “red wall” seat in northern England and a deeply Tory constituency in the south-west, along with the resignation of respected party chairman Oliver Dowden, may have persuaded the waverers to oust their leader.

And he is still not entirely safe from the rules that state a leadership contest cannot be held more than once a year. The Conservatives are not squeamish in ejecting leaders and the 1922 Committee, that oversees party matters, could well change the rules. Or more traditionally, senior cabinet ministers may gather in numbers and inform Mr Johnson they will resign en masse unless he does so.

Minds will certainly concentrate in the coming days and with the prime minister abroad, there will be freer discussion among the higher ranks.

Resignation may prove a release for Mr Johnson who has been under relentless battering since returning from the success of the Cop26 climate summit last November. Not only has the partygate scandal of Downing Street lockdown parties undermined his voter appeal, but the relentless headwinds of very high inflation and energy prices ride alongside a looming recession.

Conservatives will be making the calculation whether to act now and change leader who has enough time to win back voters before the next election, possibly in 2024, or to stick with the incumbent and his proven voting-winning record.

Calculations are also being made among Labour and Liberal Democrat strategists on whether to continue with their successful, but entirely unofficial and deniable, policy of tactical voting.

Both by-election victories are notable for the significantly uncompetitive performance by each party in their defeated constituencies.

The possibility of a Lib-Lab coalition government increased after Friday’s eight-point shift towards Labour, as it is only just enough to ensure Sir Keir Starmer's party would get a tiny parliamentary majority. Therefore, to have a greater chance of success in removing the long-ruling Tories, Labour will need the seats the Lib Dems gain from the Conservatives in the south and south-west of England to form a government.

When Mr Johnson returns to London next Friday, the plotters could well find themselves still powerless to act. Similarly, the prime minister will probably put the defeats down to mid-term blues then paint a cheerful picture of how Britain will strive forward to better times. After all, optimism is what he does best.

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Updated: June 24, 2022, 11:47 AM
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