Tory support for Boris Johnson ebbing after disastrous by-election defeats

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·7-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Boris Johnson’s hold on the premiership is in peril, amid signs that support for his leadership within the Conservative Party is ebbing away in the wake of a pair of disastrous by-election defeats.

As Labour seized back the totemic red-wall seat of Wakefield and Liberal Democrats overturned a record by-election majority to take “true blue” Tiverton & Honiton in Devon, one MP who backed Mr Johnson in a confidence vote less than three weeks ago told The Independent that he and others could no longer support the prime minister.

Tory chair Oliver Dowden quit, citing the “distress and disappointment” of party members over the Partygate scandal and saying: “Someone must take responsibility.”

And former leader Michael Howard suggested that other ministers should now follow him out of the cabinet as he became the latest grandee to call for the prime minister to go.

Mr Johnson himself insisted he would not “crumple”, and Downing Street dismissed calls for him to return to London from a nine-day trip abroad, taking in summits of the Commonwealth, G7 and Nato, to steady his restive party.

Veteran MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown was among those calling on the PM to “come home” and outline how to “resolve the really serious situation the country is in”.

The calls came as one cabinet minister told The Independent that “the mood has shifted” following the double defeats, with indications that would-be successors to Mr Johnson were making steps towards more solid leadership campaigns.

One senior backbencher told The Independent: “I voted for Boris last time but I just can’t see any way out of it for him right now.

“It is now a question of when, not if. The public have made up their minds. We got it wrong in hanging on to John Major in the Nineties and we can’t get it wrong a second time with Johnson.

“He’s not helping himself with the message he has sent out after the results, saying he is staying on.

“It sounds like he is saying, ‘I’m putting myself first and clinging on as long as possible’. That will make a lot of his supporters think, ‘I came into politics to serve the country and the party, not to serve you’.”

Rebel Tories were preparing for a battle to claim a majority on the influential 1922 Committee, which holds the power to change party rules and bring forward a second vote on Mr Johnson’s future.

Andrew Bridgen told The Independent he will stand in next month’s elections to the committee’s 18-member executive on a platform of scrapping a rule that requires a 12-month gap between confidence votes. Other MPs said they expect a Downing Street bid to pack the executive with loyalists to stave off a new challenge.

Potential contenders in any leadership battle are believed to be hoping that Mr Johnson’s removal can be achieved through a vote staged by the backbench committee, in order to avoid them dashing their prospects by being seen as “the one who wields the knife”.

But Johnson critics saw a visit from “the men in grey suits” as a more likely outcome, with one telling The Independent that many of the 211 MPs who backed the PM in the 6 June confidence vote had already factored in the by-election disasters.

“The ’22 executive will tell him to move on or the cabinet will tell him to move on or the chief whip will tell him to move on,” said one. “If that doesn’t happen, there’ll be another vote, but either way he’ll be gone by the end of the year.”

A current member of the executive confirmed that there was nothing in the rules to prevent an MP from standing on a mandate to change them.

But some rebels believe this will not be necessary, as chair Sir Graham Brady would be forced to act if it becomes obvious that the majority of MPs want change.

One senior MP who has previously submitted a letter of no confidence in Johnson told The Independent: “The prime minister has lost the trust of the country and it appears he is neither a winner in the red wall or the blue wall. Of course he should resign. He is dragging everybody down by lingering on.

“But I have no expectation that he will. I don’t think we have long to wait until he is forced out, but that is in the hands of the ’22.

“Further cabinet resignations would help, but I don’t think any of them will do it. They have either drunk the Kool-Aid or taken the 30 pieces of silver.”

All eyes in Westminster were on Mr Dowden, to see whether the former culture secretary aligns himself with any potential candidate for succession. He is close to chancellor Rishi Sunak, who was quick to tweet his sadness at seeing him leave.

A jubilant Keir Starmer said that Labour’s recapture of Wakefield by a margin of 4,925, overturning a Tory majority of 3,358 from the 2019 election, showed that the country has “lost confidence in the Tories” and that his party was “ready for government”.

And Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said his party’s remarkable victory in Tiverton – converting a 24,239 Tory lead into a majority of 6,144 for Lib Dem Richard Foord on a 29.9 per cent swing – amounted to a message from the people of Britain to the PM that “it really is time he left”.

The third Lib Dem incursion deep into traditional Tory territory, following by-election triumphs in Chesham & Amersham and North Shropshire, sent shivers down the spines of many Conservative MPs whose safe seats now look vulnerable. The east Devon constituency was the Conservatives’ 40th-safest seat, and 284 of the party’s MPs have smaller majorities.

Mr Johnson’s appearance at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda was completely overshadowed by the electoral meltdown at home.

He took solace, at a press conference in the capital Kigali, from his own by-election triumph in Hartlepool in May 2021, telling reporters: “I’m not going to pretend that these are brilliant results. We’ve got to listen, we’ve got to learn.

“But it wasn’t that long ago – only just over a year ago – that we won a spectacular by-election victory.

“When people are finding it tough, they send messages to politicians and politicians have got to respond, and that’s what we’re doing.”

But just hours after the PM insisted he would “keep going”, his position was brutally undermined by Lord Howard, who broke his silence on the leadership question to call for him to go.

“The party, and more importantly the country, would be better off under new leadership,” the former leader told the BBC, adding: “Members of the cabinet should very carefully consider their positions.”

Public shows of support for the prime minister from senior colleagues were thin on the ground.

Loyalist Nadine Dorries brushed aside the significance of the by-elections, saying that Margaret Thatcher had suffered similar setbacks before going on to victory in the 1980s. And attorney general Suella Braverman ascribed the mid-term defeats to “a dishonest electoral pact” between Lib Dems and Labour.

But Mr Johnson’s former Brexit supremo Lord Frost, a highly influential figure on the right of the party, said it was “a terrible night and we will lose if we don’t change things”.

And the leader of the Tories in Wales, Andrew RT Davies, said it must be getting “more challenging” for the PM to convince himself that he can deliver for those who put him in office.

Former justice secretary Sir Robert Buckland, who continues to back Mr Johnson’s leadership, said he has told the PM personally that he must “look in the mirror and do better” and the Conservative Party is “about more than one man”.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting