Boris Johnson ends the week with reason to be happy. On Monday, he survived the biggest challenge to his leadership since becoming prime minister, after his Tory MPs backed him in a vote of confidence to remain party leader by 211 votes to 148.
This victory comes with some major caveats, however.
Johnson’s government is currently believed to have between 170 and 180 MPs on its payroll. As the vote was private, that meant that at best, Johnson was only able to secure a handful of backbench votes. In the worst case, employees voted against him the second they were granted the protection of anonymity.
While Johnson and his allies have since claimed the victory was compelling and a decisive result that gives the prime minister a renewed term, the reality is that 41% of his own MPs do not want him in office. The number is worse than the result of a no-confidence vote for Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, in 2018 and is expected to rise in the coming months.
For now, however, Johnson’s job is safe. Conservative Party rules protect him from another confidence vote for 12 months. There is speculation that the party could try to rewrite these rules, but given the private nature of the Tories, it is difficult to have any real idea of the likelihood of this.
So what happens next?
Johnson announces a flurry of policy ideas designed to cheer up his backbenchers and constituents. More homes, more doctors, more police, crackdown on illegal immigration to name a few.
Meanwhile, those who most want to see his downfall aren’t sitting on their hands. Publicly, MPs say the result of the confidence vote means they owe their loyalty to Johnson – for now. He deserves the time to turn things around, they say.
However, multiple sources confirmed to CNN that those with their eye on the top job are already building their power bases and preparing to launch leadership bids when the time comes.
Dinners with donors who would fund individual campaigns have already taken place, hosted by MPs who have already chosen their leader. Influential MPs have been courted to test the waters.
“The phone calls tend to start with 15 minutes insisting that Boris has his full support and that they don’t think a leadership race will take place. Then they outline their vision of how they would make things better. It’s low key, but it happens,” a senior conservative official told CNN.
The most outspoken acting prospects are unsurprisingly long-term critics of Johnson.
“Most of the activity seems to be around Jeremy Hunt and other Remainer elders,” says a veteran Tory and former cabinet minister, referring to those who wanted the UK to stay in the European Union. “It makes sense because they never wanted Boris in the first place and have the least to lose.”
Hunt, who has served in three cabinet posts, including health, is arguably the most prominent candidate on the moderate and ex-remain side of the party. However, it comes with baggage, and opposition Labor sources told CNN they are already writing lines of attack.
A senior Tory official said his fellow MPs were aware of this. “It can’t be Jeremy. Labor can say he ran health care for six years and failed to prepare for a pandemic. They can say that when he was culture secretary, he hooked up with the Murdochs during the phone-hacking scandal. He’s going to get run over,” the source said.
Other potential candidates for this side of the party include Tom Tugendhat, a former military man who chairs the foreign affairs select committee, and current education secretary Nadhim Zahawi.
Tugendhat impressed his colleagues with his eloquence and seriousness, especially when he spoke about the fall of Afghanistan, a country where he had served in the army.
Although he voted to leave the EU in 2016, Zahawi is widely admired among party moderates. Basically, as a Tory source put it, ‘he hasn’t been in government long enough to have any obvious flaws and, although he backed Boris even after the confidence vote, he isn’t too tainted of association”.
Obviously, it’s harder to run a stealth leadership campaign if you’re a sitting minister. How do you defend the Prime Minister after the confidence vote while courting MPs to test the waters?
This is the problem faced by those considered to be candidates for leave.
Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, voted to Remain in 2016 but has since become one of the strongest Eurosceptic voices in government, particularly on Northern Ireland. She has a great and dedicated team around her – some of whom previously worked in Number 10 – who have produced stylish videos and photos of her looking like a statesman. Which might be helpful if she ran for leader, a cynic might say.
A source working at the Foreign Office told CNN that since Monday Truss “has had endless meetings with MPs”, adding that although the meetings are officially about Northern Ireland “it has been insinuated that she sees what her base of support is, if the time comes.”
Truss’s office denies any secret leadership bids. She said before the vote of confidence that she supports Johnson “100%” and encourages her colleagues to do the same. After the vote, she urged MPs to say it was time to move on to “get behind the Prime Minister”.
Truss’ most obvious rival is current Home Secretary Priti Patel. One of the conservative sources said Patel’s stealth campaign “has been busy, organized and underway for about a year.”
Patel is very popular among the party base and the more conservative wing. She’s a lifelong Eurosceptic with years of fierce discussions about immigration, crime and the economy under her belt. She was famous for supporting the return of the death penalty, although she has since moved away from that.
Both cabinet ministers publicly back the prime minister and officials say their aim is to implement Johnson’s agenda, nothing else.
However, a government minister told CNN that some cabinet ministers “use their office to promote themselves and engage with MPs.”
While inviting influential MPs to your big state office is nothing new, the minister says the tone in Westminster “has changed since Monday. Everyone expects there to be a vacancy at some point in the near future.
The next major hurdle for Johnson to overcome is the two by-elections on June 23. If he loses both, which is not impossible, his detractors will move again. The party could try to rewrite the rules so it faces another leadership vote.
If the party does not rewrite the rules, it will struggle to overturn its own popularity and that of its party before the next elections scheduled for 2024.
It’s an unenviable task, given that the UK is in a cost of living crisis and the Tories have been in power for 12 years. And under normal circumstances, you’d be forgiven for thinking Johnson is safe because no one in their right mind wants the job.
But that’s how things go wrong. Despite the gravity of the next few years for the UK, ambitious politicians are ready to throw their hats into the ring at what could be the worst possible time and risk their entire careers. Because if they don’t, anyone can guess how far Johnson could take his party with him.