Among the many features that distinguish Boris Johnson from political contemporaries is his attitude to risk.
Boris Johnson appears to love risk.
This is the man who chanced that he could send his then stuttering political career into orbit by taking on a Labour-leaning city and entering the race for London Mayor. This is the man who chose to become a leading Brexiter, at a time when Remain was ahead in the polls. This is the prime minister who was happy to confront media and legal opinion to prorogue parliament and incite an early election. In late 2020, here was a national leader, later pictured feet up with alcohol-free Heineken on the desk, comfortable taking the 2020 Brexit negotiations deep into extra time.
For Boris Johnson, taking a gamble is a strategy that seems to pay off.
Now facing the gravest peril of his political career, don’t be surprised if this most brazen of political leaders, is about to cue another high-risk plan.
After the May elections, expect Boris Johnson to go on the attack. It will start with a far more active defence of both his actions and his premiership.
Soon after, brace yourselves for Boris, standing phlegmatically on the steps of Downing Street, to announce that he himself has written to Sir Graham Brady requesting a ‘vote of confidence’ from his parliamentary colleagues. Here he will declare, that the uncertainty over his premiership can continue no more.
In a move mirroring John Major’s 1995 actions, this will be Johnson’s very own ‘back me’ or ‘sack me’ moment.
Sound far-fetched? Maybe, but read on.
Can Boris Johnson actually initiate a vote of no confidence?
The knee jerk answer to this question would appear to be no. Maybe that is why no one is talking about this idea, just yet.
The rules appear to state that Conservative leadership elections can only be triggered if 15% of Conservative MPs write to the chair of the party’s 1922 committee stating that they no longer have confidence in the party leader, or, if the current leader resigns.
Schedule 2 (Point 2) of the 2009 rules for the election of the Conservative party leader makes it clear that a resigning leader is not eligible for re-nomination in any subsequent leadership election. If Boris Johnson wishes to remain PM, he can’t therefore resign.
Yet what happens if a non-resigning Boris Johnson asks for a confidence vote?
Unlike the later stages of the election system for the Conservative party leader, the rules surrounding the ‘no confidence’ part of the process are not published in the public domain. According to the Institute of Government, the rules around this aspect of the contest can be changed at any time by the executive of the 1922 committee in consultation with the Conservative Party board. As such, if the PM requests a vote of confidence, it would seem perfectly plausible for his request to be facilitated.
On first glance, the executive offices of the 1922 committee appear populated by MPs considered particularly hostile to Boris Johnson (William Wragg, Nus Ghani, Gary Sambrook, Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown etc..). Yet could these proverbial folks in grey suits really thwart the PM’s request, if it is so publicly delivered, and couched in the interests of combating the national uncertainty which is afflicting good governance.
Even if they were minded, they may be powerless to do so. MPs who fervently support the PM, of which there are still plenty, could declare that they are topping up the number of ‘no confidence’ letters in order to facilitate the PM’s ‘perfectly reasonable’ appeal that this matter now be brought to a conclusion.
Sound dramatic? Remember the prorogation of Parliament. Boris Johnson ‘does’ dramatic.
So why would Boris Johnson want to call a vote of no confidence?
Analysis by Politics.co.uk has shown there are already more than enough hostile Conservative MPs to initiate a vote of no confidence in the prime minister.
Yet at the same time, it is far from clear that opponents of the PM have the wider majority they need in order to evict him from No.10. Until they do so, it is fair to assume, many potential letters remain on ice.
Come early May, a deluge of fresh cannon balls will be heading in the prime minister’s direction. There is the potential for more police fines. These will be followed by the publication of the Gray report in all its damning glory. There is then the likelihood of further ministerial resignations, not to mention further internal party wobbling on the back of poor local election results.
But unless it happens by accident (which it might), the PM’s opponents may still yet lack the confidence to strike.
Into this temporary void, Boris, the gambler, will make his move. And on the face of it, there would appear good reasons for him to do so:
1. Seizing the initiative
In 2018, a no confidence vote was forced upon Theresa May when the dreaded letter threshold was surpassed. As it happened, she saw off that challenge. Nonetheless, for any party leader, the optics of initiating your own contest, are surely superior to having one inflicted upon you.
For Boris Johnson, if a vote is coming eventually, why not look as if you are bringing it on?
Such an approach would attempt to regain charge of events. It would potentially capture people by surprise, doing so before various opponents were properly organised. As an act of strong leadership, it may even win him further support within the parliamentary party.
2. Maximising the chances of victory
Whilst there are no guarantees that Boris Johnson would win an imminent vote of no confidence, there are good reasons to believe that the sooner the contest, the greater Johnson’s chances of success.
The war in Ukraine has already led a large number of Conservative MPs to state that this is not the time to be changing leader. The extent to which that line holds in a secret ballot remains to be seen, but there is certainly the possibility that events in south east Europe may provide the PM with as many as 20-30 votes that he might not be able to rely on later in the year.
What is more, the Conservatives are still just about within touching distance of Labour in the opinion polls. That deficit is currently trending at 4%. As the partygate saga rumbles on, and more potently, as both energy prices and interest rates continue to rise, that gap may widen. In May, Conservative MPs with marginal or semi-marginal seats may still feel their political futures have life under Boris. They may not feel the same come the autumn.
Most of all, there is currently no obvious Conservative party leader in waiting. This presents a very different backdrop to the leadership contests faced by Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, when the likes of Michael Heseltine and Boris Johnson himself, were there to swap in.
As of today, the chancellor appears heavily wounded. The foreign secretary is seen as stilted and lacks popularity with the public. The home secretary is a non starter. When there is a war on, the defence secretary will struggle to justify a diversionary grass roots leadership campaign. And coincidently or not, the health secretary, who has been at the forefront of politics for nearly a decade, is suddenly facing scrutiny around his tax affairs from twenty years back. Right now, the field is devoid of sure-fire alternatives.
More so than any point in the last fifty years, British politics (on all sides) lacks big beasts. Where there may have been a viable alternative two months ago, and where one could still emerge later in the year, right now there isn’t an abundance of choice. This helps Boris Johnson. As they cast their ballots in May, wavering Conservative MPs will be forced to ask themselves, if they press to eject Boris Johnson, what on earth happens then?
3. Regaining control over his premiership
Should Boris Johnson win a vote of no confidence this May, he will be free from any further contest for twelve months. This guarantee provides him with the breathing space he needs.
In his mind, Johnson may feel that victory at the hands of his parliamentary colleagues, gives him the legitimacy to draw a line under his current travails.
Without the ability to depose their leader, the parliamentary Conservative party may feel it has to knuckle down. With the leadership saga resolved, the media will be forced to move on. Public attention may diversify onto other things. The prime minister will gain the freedom to reshuffle his cabinet even closer (as far as that is possible) in his own image. And critically, when the commons privileges committee comes to report on whether the PM misled parliament, Boris Johnson will be more institutionally secure.
During this 12 month period, the prime minister and his young family will be able to utilise the ornamental sofas at Chequers with greater certainty.
When their annual pass eventually expires, the height of the covid crisis will be nearly three years gone. Such is the nature of partygate, there is no guarantee that time will heal the toxicity of this wound. But at that point, a general election campaign will only be 10 months away. Potentially too near for further introspection, Johnson’s parliamentary colleagues may then gravitate forwards not backwards.
Would Boris Johnson win a no confidence vote next month?
The way in which Conservative MPs cast their votes will still depend on events: the number of fines that are issued, the content of the Gray report, and the attitude of voters.
Yet from a total of 359 Conservative MPs, analysis by this Politics.co.uk suggests there are currently 152 MPs considered supportive of the prime minister. Allowing for the double dealing of politics, and for further wobbling in light of the upcoming events, it is though reasonable to assume that Boris Johnson will enter any contest with a floor level of support from135 MPs.
With 180 votes needed to guarantee victory, the PM would need to find 45 more supporters from the remaining pool of 225 colleagues. 67 of these look firmly off-limits, and a further 57 are showing signs of concern, but the PM would only appear to need to secure a fifth of this pool. That is not guaranteed. Those colleagues are currently not giving him their public backing for a reason. But he doesn’t need them all.
Right now, the gambling prime minister might assume he has a better than ‘evens’ chance of victory. Come the summer, or the autumn, those odds might not be quite so favourable.
One step ahead?
From what we have observed of Boris Johnson, this is not a man who does ‘lying limply’ in the stocks.
Faced with the prospect of ongoing daily lashings, are we really to expect the PM to solemnly accumulate welts, until the wounds reach their inevitable mortal threshold?
Perhaps one reason that Boris Johnson’s public demeanor remains cheery, such that he seems so outwardly able to withstand the daily evisceration that he is enduring, is because he is already one step ahead.
He knows his next move.
As the ultimate political gambler, he is comfortable with the risks and odds involved.
Even if this gamble of ‘high politics’ goes against him, he will have done his best to change the historical narrative. Rather than being unceremoniously dragged from office, Boris Johnson would have proactively given his colleagues a choice. If they deposed him, and the Conservatives went on to subsequent electoral defeat, that would go down as their mistake. As a proven winner, they should have stuck with him all along.
Of course this is all speculation.
But if you somehow existed in the mind of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, isn’t this exactly the sort of strategy, with which you would feel at home?
William Bracken is the Commissioning Editor of Politics.co.uk