Boris Johnson is currently presiding over a Cabinet meeting after the worst night of his political life (and that includes the farcical spectacle of his withdrawal from the leadership race to succeed David Cameron).
Last night was a terrible result for Johnson; 148 of his colleagues declared they have no confidence in him. Comparisons with previous leadership bouts are somewhat meaningless with Johnson, who has a habit of ripping up the form guide (and rule book for that matter) but, on a like-for-like basis, the result is more precarious than the one that eventually toppled Theresa May. Even more awkward is that when May won her Pyrrhic victory it was many of the same MPs who hit the airwaves demanding she go immediately that now sit feet away from Johnson in his top team, declaring that “one is enough”.
Just to rub a bit more salt in the wound, it’s also worth pointing out that the vote amounted to an equivalent of 75% of those MPs neither on Boris Johnson’s ministerial payroll nor in some way dependent on his patronage for a job they hold.
But as bad as it is this morning, the worst is still to come for the Prime Minister. A no-confidence vote was inevitable and yesterday was probably the least worst day for it to happen. Crucially it avoided the fallout from the forthcoming by-elections on 23rd June (tell me a Tory MP that would be comfortable with the status quo if they witness a rock solid 24,000 majority evaporate, as is expected to happen in Tiverton). It also came during a brief period of respite from the Partygate debacle, which will come back with a bang when the Parliamentary Privileges Committee issues its report at the end of the summer that could see him suspended from the House of Commons for misleading MPs.
Despite the almost comical TV clips and quotes to news reporters from Cabinet Ministers and loyal allies that the contest draws a line under Boris’s leadership woes and the Government will ‘bash on’, the reality is that the Prime Minister is very close to being an ex-PM. I’m hesitant to go further because Johnson has confounded us so many times before with his escape artistry – but the chances of survival are vanishingly small.
One of the quirks of the Conservative Party’s defenestration rulebook is that an alternative leader isn’t identified. This wasn’t always so; Maggie Thatcher faced a leadership challenge first from Anthony Meyer and then a year later from Michael Heseltine. Back then the rules supported the notion that pretenders to the throne don’t receive power, they have to take it.
That is still just as true today and as Boris Johnson limps on in office with diminished power, the corridors, tearooms and WhatsApp chat groups will be the battleground for the unofficial leadership campaigns that have already started in earnest.
We’ll delve into the runners and riders in more detail in the days ahead but, suffice it to say, the hunt is on for a unifier that can win back the trust of the public. It will be no small task.
It’s unclear how the next chapter unfolds; there could be Cabinet resignations, changes to the 1922 committee rules to allow another no-confidence vote, or perhaps a resignation from a Prime Minister that’s run out of road. But come the Party Conference in October, chances are that we’ll have a new Prime Minister.