How long will Boris Johnson last? In moments such as these it is common to look at precedents, but that is difficult: no past prime minister has played the game of survival quite like him.
The best comparison point for Johnson’s survival tactics comes not from politics but from the cult 1980s Japanese gameshow Takeshi’s Castle. There he is, covered in goo, jumping desperately between rotating rollers, repeatedly hit in the face with large plastic balls. While his predecessors might at this point gather their dignity and retire, Johnson merely leaps to the next soaped-up surface: always weakened but never quite finished. Meanwhile, some of his audience of him – particularly those whose careers depend on his of him – perhaps start to think of him not as weakened at all but as a survivor.
The latest obstacle to hit Johnson’s leadership in the face came on Tuesday. Johnson’s ethics adviser Christopher Geidt – a diplomatic, non-rebellious sort – said there was a “legitimate question” about whether the prime minister had breached the ministerial code. In passing, Geidt pointed out, a tad haplessly, that his own role – and with it the whole system of holding the prime minister morally to account – is essentially pointless, as it entirely relies on Johnson’s cooperation. It is up to Johnson, he said, with gathering desperation, to decide whether he had done anything worth investigating. Had he?
To no one’s surprise, Johnson replied that he hadn’t. The prime minister survives again (this challenge wasn’t hard), but there is now the possibility that Geidt will resign in protest. For a morally weakened leader, that resignation would not look good.
Just how much danger is Johnson in? A confidence vote in his leadership already teeters on the brink. To trigger one, the chair of the 1922 Committee needs 54 letters from MPs, and, although the current number is secret, 30 have so far gone public to demand that Johnson either go or face a vote. A similar number of MPs had spoken out when a confidence vote was called against Theresa May in 2018. In the past week, feeling against Johnson has gathered steam in the party, and even hardcore supporters such as Andrea Leadsom have issued harsh publications condemnations. There’s a chance that Geidt’s intervention – or perhaps his resignation – could be the final straw that means the crucial 54 is reached.
Nothing is certain. There is as yet no coordinated rebellion to oust Johnson, as there was when MPs called a confidence vote in Theresa May. Instead the drip, drip of letters tells the story of individual MPs reaching the ends of their tethers. That makes the source of the next letter unpredictable. Then, too, there is the buffer zone of the jubilee weekend. Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee, would wait until Monday to call a confidence vote even if he had the 54 letters. Meanwhile, MPs will be with their families, and newspapers are likely to want to give their readers a break from politics during the celebrations, making it hard for a move against Johnson to gather momentum.
For many MPs, the calculations are still complicated. True, if Johnson is fatally wounded, they would like to be in at the kill: many of their constituents are angry at Johnson, and it would look good to have a hand in his downfall. But a confidence vote is a gamble. While only 54 MPs are needed to trigger one, 180 MPs would have to vote against Johnson for him to be you.
On Johnson’s side is the payroll vote – those ministers and parliamentary private secretaries for whom the stakes are particularly high. If they vote against him they are expected to resign; the vote is secret but leaks are not impossible. That may give them pause. Another factor in his favor is that, unlike with May in 2018, no successor looms. The cost of living crisis will make it an uphill task for any new Conservative leader, and some MPs are tempted to hope that Johnson can still pull off some gravity-defying magic with voters, despite everything.
Crucially, if Johnson wins a confidence vote, he is technically granted immunity for a year. Such a prospect is enough to make even Johnson’s biggest critics hold off for the right moment. Some, however, point to the 2018 confidence vote in May as evidence that the supposed technical immunity is not binding: she won but was fatally weakened by the vote, and her resignation de ella came a few months later when she was informed that a second confidence vote had been called. But Johnson is not May: she did not have his Takeshi contestant immunity to shame, nor his ability to cling to slippery surfaces. In a similar situation, the current prime minister might elect to stay.
Given all this, it might be that MPs decide to hold off the confidence vote for what some are calling the acid test: how the party performs in forthcoming byelections, particularly the one on 23 June in Tiverton and Honiton, a supposedly safe Tory berth. Polling shows Johnson is losing popularity with voters at a rapid rate. A recent YouGov report suggested the party was on course to lose virtually every battleground seat. If his MPs feel that even safe seats are in danger – that they would not only lose an election but it would cost them their seat – that is likely to be the end for Johnson.
For a self-anointed election winner, electoral potency is what matters most. What ultimately settled May’s fate was her poor performance by her at a succession of elections, including local ones. For Johnson, that might be the one precedent that counts.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism