‘This feels like the end of the regime’: Conservative MPs think Boris Johnson could soon be toast
Potential successors are lining up, as Johnson's credibility with his party crumbles.
“This feels like the end of the regime,” one senior Conservative MP and former minister told me, after what has been the worst week for Boris Johnson’s government so far.
“It may be retrievable, but the prime minister’s got to do some pretty big things in order to retrieve it and I’m just not convinced he’s capable of doing them.”
This sense that Boris Johnson simply isn’t up to the job is quickly spreading in the Conservative Party.
His botched handling of the Downing Street parties scandal has brought to a head what was already a growing leadership crisis.
After months of scandal, lies, investigations, rebellions, chaotic U-turns and resignations, many in the party are now starting to question whether it is time to call it a day.
“I've never felt it like this, even in the May era,” the former minister told me.
“The really interesting thing is how quickly some of the 2019 intake have fallen out of love with him.”
Among those new MPs who have become disillusioned with their leader is Conservative MP Christian Wakeford, who I appeared with on LBC’s Cross Question panel discussion show on Wednesday.
Asked by the host Iain Dale whether he had submitted a letter to the 1922 Committee asking for Johnson’s resignation, Wakeford replied that while he hadn’t done so “at the moment,” his patience with the prime minister was running out.
“I think it's fair to say that for the last couple of weeks it's been shocking, hasn't it"?” Wakeford said.
“There's no way to hide behind it, it's been embarrassing.”
Asked if Johnson was the right leader to help him hold onto his very marginal seat, he replied that: “if it's the Boris Johnson from last couple of weeks, I think it's gonna be tough.”
Johnson’s leadership is in peril
The crisis could come to a dramatic head within days. Early next week MPs are due to vote on the government’s new measures to tackle the Omicron variant, which were seemingly rushed out this week in an apparent attempt to divert from recent headlines.
The new measures are overwhelmingly disliked by Conservative MPs.
When the Health Secretary Sajid Javid announced them earlier this week he was met by extraordinary calls of “resign” from his own benches.
Even among those Tory MPs who have publicly supported the Covid measures, there is dissatisfaction.
“The problem with these restrictions is they are contradictory and confused” one Tory MP told me.
“It’s telling us to work from home but also to work from the pub. You can turn up to events with your vaccine passport, but you can also turn up with a lateral flow test. Well how is that going to be enforceable?
“What's the point of putting something in place which is completely unenforceable?”
Johnson is likely to suffer the biggest Conservative rebellion of his premiership on the question of vaccine passports, with only Labour votes ensuring he is not defeated.
Even if he survives that another big political event next week could tip his premiership over the edge.
Defeat in the North Shropshire by-election, in what should be an ultra-safe seat for the party, would be seriously dangerous for the prime minister.
It’s difficult to know exactly what the chances of defeat are. The party has a huge majority in the seat and they should, on paper, be easily able to hold on.
However, Liberal Democrat sources I spoke to this week talked up their chances of victory, saying that the issue of Downing Street parties had become a major talking point on the doorstep.
Many Conservatives are also very gloomy about their prospects.
One former Cabinet Minister told me that defeat in Shropshire would “cement the feeling of unravelling that has developed” about Johnson’s leadership,
Another former minister predicted that: “I think the central conclusion has to be that we'll probably lose it.”
Challengers to Johnson are limbering up
Even if defeat in Shropshire is avoided, there are multiple other stumbling blocks awaiting Johnson.
A faltering economy, multiple investigations into his conduct and a potentially poor set of local elections in May could all be the trigger for his downfall.
If and when that does take place, attention is already turning to potential successors.
At the front of the pack is the Chancellor Rishi Sunak and the Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.
Truss has been a strong favourite of Conservative members for over a year, according to surveys by Conservative Home, with Sunak the bookies’ favourite to succeed Johnson.
“It's well known that a few people, including Liz, are thinking about a challenge,” one Conservative MP told me.
“I suppose in sporting terms, it's people doing some stretches. They’re getting ready to have the muscles warmed up before they can run.
Several MPs I spoke to said they believed that Truss was the current frontrunner, ahead of Sunak.
“Conventionally everybody is saying Rishi at the moment but I think Rishi is too young in political experience to get to the very top,” one told me.
His recent tax-raising budget also appears to have hurt his chances.
Truss, by contrast, has managed to sail through the government’s recent problems with ease.
“She has had remarkably smooth journey over the last couple of years and has looked like she has done a good job giving some positive gloss to Brexit at the Department for Trade and now the Foreign Office,” one former minister told me.
“Her critics say she has had easy roles but that’s not the point. She looks happy and positive and in the circumstances that gives colleagues a boost.
However, they added that “being favourite won’t help her of course so she could keep her head down and just work hard and be loyal.”
Johnson’s (dead) cat is running out of lives
New polling out on Friday showed that Johnson’s approval rating has hit a record low, with two thirds of the public now having a negative opinion of the prime minister.
For a politician whose entire career is founded on his supposedly winning personality this is clearly a very dangerous moment.
In the past he has managed to recover from similar scandals, but a cat only has so many lives.
All the evidence from recent weeks is that Johnson is now finally running out of his.
Please sign up for a full subscription to Folded with Adam Bienkov to get every edition direct to your inbox.