Boris Johnson has rebuffed a leadership challenge…for now | Politics


A month ago, Boris Johnson’s job as prime minister looked in jeopardy. ‘Coming into work was like going to a funeral every day,’ recalls an aide at No 10. ‘You could feel the guilt in the building from people thinking ‘we let him down “.”

Faced with a trickle of Tory MPs openly calling on the Prime Minister to step down and a police investigation into the lockdown parties, the politician who had always managed to extricate himself seemed hopeless this time around.

But after removing some of his top advisers from Downing Street, charting a course to restore discipline to the party by overhauling the office of whips in a mini reshuffle and with respite from the indefinitely delayed Sue Gray report, Johnson delayed hooked.

More than that, however, he won over some naysayers and sought to portray himself as a Churchillian leader, given the war in Ukraine.

Tory MPs who had previously inquired privately against him are now rallying to his defence. One called him “a real hero in times of crisis”. Another said: ‘Anyone to act against him would be out of tune.

Hardly a day goes by that Johnson is not pictured meeting troops, diplomats and foreign leaders, constantly asserting that the UK is leading the international response to Russian aggression.

Headlines about Russia’s nuclear posture, the bombing of civilian buildings and the resulting humanitarian crisis are constantly attracting attention, which means that the momentum that was pushing Johnson to quit quickly died down.

Another previously critical Tory MP confessed: ‘At the moment it certainly works in our party’s favour.’

The arrival in Downing Street of David Canzini, a well-respected aide among Tory MPs, was seen as a vote of confidence in Johnson.

Some members of the ‘pork pie conspiracy’ were spotted dining in one of the parliamentary restaurants earlier this week. The public nature of their gathering was seen by government whips as a sign that the private plot had ceased.

“We missed our shot,” sighed a Conservative backbench MP. “I did everything I could to get rid of him. The only person who can bring down Boris is Boris.

Another admitted it was fanciful to think they could get 181 colleagues to vote against Johnson even if they somehow managed to get the 54 letters needed to trigger a vote of confidence, whether Johnson should be fined by the police.

The war has also shone the spotlight on two ministers widely seen as the favorites in a Conservative leadership race: Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.

The response to Russian aggression has prompted some to accuse the pair of not being quick or tough enough to respond with sanctions. A Whitehall insider said: ‘We keep saying we’re the world leader in this, but we’re not anymore.

Some doubt Johnson was ever in real danger, given that he suffered no ministerial resignations – unlike Theresa May before she left.

But only one person who submitted a letter of censure to the Prime Minister said he withdrew it, suggesting Johnson is not completely off the hook.

“Especially in times of international crisis, it is essential that leaders are honest and have integrity,” said a senior Tory MP. “Until we hear from the Met and see Sue Gray’s full report, the jury is still out.”

Another said: “The fundamentals haven’t changed – we can’t trust him and we don’t know what scandal will follow.”

A former Tory No 10 adviser also warned that Johnson was ‘on borrowed time’ and ‘simply has no room for mistakes or other embarrassment’.

There is also a dangerous point approaching: the local elections on May 5.

Given Labor’s lead in every national opinion poll since December 8, a minister said he was ‘extremely nervous’ about the Tories’ performance and it was hard to see Johnson surviving if the party’s leading council, Wandsworth, was lost.

Part of the reason Johnson seems safe at the moment is that the initial campaign to oust him was poorly organized. With MPs’ attention focused on Ukraine, there is even less coordination to keep the pressure on him.


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