Opinion

Oliver Dowden’s resignation puts Boris Johnson in dangerous territory

When Boris Johnson was running for the Tory leadership in the summer of 2019, he faced resistance from the parliamentary party. The sense was that if he made it to the final round voted for by the Tory grassroots he would be the next prime minister – but first MPs had to put him there.

A significant breakthrough came in early June. An op-ed appeared in the Times by three Tory rising stars: Robert Jenrick, Rishi Sunak and Oliver Dowden. Their message: “The Tories are in deep peril. Only Boris Johnson can save us.” Members of the team who worked on Johnson’s leadership campaign credited it for turning the mood among MPs.

But in the wake of a disastrous set of byelection results that saw the Tories lose to Labour in Wakefield and to the Liberal Democrats in the formerly safe seat of Tiverton and Honiton, one of those authors is now putting Johnson in dangerous territory. After taking in the results, Dowden handed in his resignation, declaring: “We cannot carry on with business as usual.”

His decision blindsided aides in Downing Street and showed how the mood in the Tory party continues to turn against the prime minister. Others believe his resignation was more predictable. “He’s been the subject of negative briefings for months – they expect people to be loyal even when they are treated like rubbish,” says one senior Tory.

Dowden’s resignation creates problems for Johnson. First, he needs to find a replacement – which one MP predicts will be a “frothing loyalist” (MPs complain that attempts to reach out to different factions in the party is often just talk). Second, given Dowden was loyal to Johnson and is not seen to harbour leadership ambitions, his resignation is much harder to dismiss than an intervention from a figure like Jeremy Hunt. Dowden is widely seen by colleagues as someone who is loyal to the party rather than personally ambitious.

While Johnson meets with world leaders at the Commonwealth summit in Kigali, his MPs back home are in an increasingly restive mood. It’s not that the losses were a surprise. If anything, given the government’s problems of late, the party’s defeat in two byelections seemed likely. But the scale of the defeat is an issue. There had been false hope in Tory circles that the mood was improving and they could cling on to the seat which had a Tory majority of more than 24,000 votes. Instead, the Lib Dems won it comfortably, with a majority of 6,144.

Voters’ intentions in byelections can differ from a general election. Nonetheless, the loss of these two seats exposes how the Conservative vote is suffering both among the new voters they won in 2019 and in traditionally Tory areas in the south. “It’s the ‘red wall’ and the blue wall. It’s a nightmare,” one Tory MP who is concerned over their own seat told me.

After bad results, it’s not uncommon that a party chair – in charge of the campaigns – would consider their position. But the issue here is that the swings against the Tories are so large that it is hard to argue campaign tactics were the problem. The issues are clearly more fundamental than that.

“He doesn’t look like world king now,” says one party figure, referring to Johnson’s childhood ambition. Instead, the number one asset that secured the prime minister’s victories in City Hall, the EU referendum and then Downing Street is now in short supply. He does not look much like an election winner.

Johnson’s supporters have often implied to wayward MPs that he could go to the polls early. Yet this “would be suicide”, says one Tory MP. There’s also heavy scepticism around the idea that Johnson would even do this: current numbers suggest he would lose his own seat in an election before the forthcoming boundary review in 2023.

Yet for all this anger, it doesn’t mean Johnson is about to go anywhere anytime soon. The prime minister has confirmed once again that he plans to plod on. His team in Downing Street have heard threats from MPs so many times that they take them with a pinch of salt.

What’s more, the confidence vote already happened – just a few weeks ago. That means the prime minister is technically safe for another 12 months. While rules can be changed, there is little appetite to do so. It’s why aides in Downing Street think they have breathing space.

“If the rebels hadn’t blown their load early, I’d be worried,” says one supporter of Boris Johnson, who suggested the MPs in question couldn’t organise their own underwear. Those who are keen to see Johnson go have a sense of a missed opportunity. “If there was a [no confidence] vote now, the result would be different,” one government adviser said.

So, where does this all lead? Tory MPs have been unhappy for some time, but they are short on tools to do much about it. It’s why Dowden’s resignation ought to worry Johnson the most. If more former Johnson loyalists turn their back on him, the situation could quickly change.

  • Katy Balls is the Spectator’s deputy political editor

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