There is a saying among ministers that the safest place to be in a crisis is the dispatch box. Behind it, you are in control of the situation. You can respond to any development on your own terms.
But for Boris Johnson there was little to take comfort from when he faced MPs in the Commons chamber on Wednesday. When asked by the Conservative MP Tim Loughton if there was anything that would convince him to resign, he replied that it was the job of a prime minister who had won a “colossal” mandate to keep going even if times were tough.
The problem for Johnson is that an increasingly small number of his MPs agree. After losing two senior cabinet ministers – in the form of his chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and health secretary, Sajid Javid – his government is in freefall.
Aides in Downing Street have attempted to shore up the prime minister by moving quickly to replace the cabinet vacancies, but that hasn’t stopped others following suit. In the rest of government, there are now about 20 unfilled posts.
Tory MPs, meanwhile, are conspiring to find a way to force him from office before the summer recess in two weeks’ time. Given the failed bid to oust him last month, Johnson is technically safe from another no confidence ballot until June next year. To try to fix that, members of the 1922 executive will meet to discuss a rule change: it’s possible that Johnson could end up facing another no confidence vote as early as next week.
While aides in No 10 say they are bullish about his prospects, the numbers don’t look good. “The mood has turned,” a member of the 2019 intake tells me. “Every day he stays is bad for the party.”
This has been coming for some time. Johnson never really bothered bringing his party on side – after winning a majority of 80 in the 2019 general election, many in his team decided that there was little need to. Now that is coming back to haunt him.
“There’s no way back for him,” adds a former minister. “We always knew we were doing a deal with the devil but we didn’t expect him to also be incompetent.” Recent comments by Johnson on his tour abroad, in which he suggested that he would not change and spoke about his hopes for a third term, served to turn MPs who were sitting on the fence against him.
Even if he manages to avoid a vote in the coming weeks, he would then face the prospect of trying to govern when so many in the party are openly against him. Prior to the Pincher scandal, which sped the moves against the prime minister, aides in No 10 were talking up party conference in October as a chance for Johnson to reassert control. That now looks ambitious.
Even those cabinet ministers who have decided to stick with the prime minister are having doubts. Michael Gove has kept a notably low public profile, having reportedly called on Wednesday morning for the prime minister to go. Meanwhile, displays of loyalty may have more to them than meets the eye.
There’s an argument that for potential leadership hopefuls, such as Liz Truss or Nadhim Zahawi, it could be advantageous for them to remain in cabinet and then win over the Johnson loyalist vote in any contest. Zahawi – now chancellor – is increasingly talked up as a serious leadership candidate.
But anyone thinking the end of Johnson will spell a more harmonious period for the Conservative party is likely mistaken. If he goes, the leadership contest that follows will be vicious, and the task the victor will face of trying to lead the parliamentary party daunting.
“It’s going to be awful,” says a former minister. “I think the best thing is to stay completely out of it and then see where things are.”
After all, Johnson still has loyal followers, and they don’t take kindly to the idea of MPs changing the rules to oust a prime minister who won the largest majority since Margaret Thatcher. One such figure warns that any rewriting of the rules of the 1922 would unleash forces MPs would come to regret.
Expect Johnson’s praetorian guard – made up of figures such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries – to work against any possible candidate deemed insufficiently loyal to the prime minister. Among the old guard there is a particular venom for Rishi Sunak, whom they view as insufficiently loyal or supportive even before he quit as chancellor. “They’d also still have Boris on the sidelines as a thorn in their side – whether in the Commons or through a column,” adds a senior Tory.
For now, Downing Street won’t even engage in these scenarios. The message from the prime minister and his top team is that he will keep fighting, and MPs will move past this bout of anger in time. Conservatives worry that he will do anything to stay in power, such as calling an early election, even though this would face mass opposition from the party.
What is clear is that with every hour that passes, the prime minister’s grip on power is becoming looser.
Katy Balls is the Spectator’s deputy political editor