Rebel Conservative MPs fear that Boris Johnson could run in a parliamentary election within a few months in an attempt to save his presidency – but party chairman Oliver Dowden has privately rejected the idea as an electoral disaster.
A lawmaker hoping to oust Johnson said they were “deadly serious” in their belief that the prime minister could seek to win himself another term by printing a vote in the fall, especially if he manages to buy time in No. 10 by winning a vote of confidence before the summer.
Some of his critics are convinced that the threshold of 54 Tory MPs required to trigger a vote of confidence could be exceeded shortly after further expected fines over the Partygate scandal, a poor result in next week’s local elections or the likely loss of the marginal Wakefield seat in the upcoming midterm elections.
However, they believe Johnson has a good chance of winning a vote that requires the support of more than 50% of his MPs – giving him a one-year suspension before he can meet another.
A Conservative MP said Dowden had dampened speculation about an early parliamentary election by privately assuring colleagues that there was “no way” they would go to the polls when Johnson’s ratings are so poor and Labor is several points ahead.
But the MP also argued that if Johnson was faced with a serious choice between being ousted by his own party and putting himself to a vote among the public, many believe he would choose the latter.
“He could try to run another anti-establishment campaign and crack down on MPs in parliament, that’s what we most fear,” they said.
Another Tory MP who wants Johnson to leave said there was nervousness in the back seat, especially among so-called Red Wall MPs, that Johnson’s “self-interest” and reputation as a risk taker could make him bet on a choice .
A senior party source insisted that an autumn election was “not the work assumption” and highlighted upcoming border changes, which are expected to benefit the Tories and will not take effect until 2023. But they added: “One thing that is always a good idea is to try to maintain a wide range of options. “
More than 6,800 seats in 200 councils across the UK are up for grabs at next week’s local elections, including every seat in London, Scotland and Wales.
Both main parties are downplaying their prospects, with Labor pointing to their strong appearance the last time these seats were contested in 2018, and the Conservatives highlighting the fact that they are lagging behind in national polls.
Tory strategists claim they are in serious trouble at the London Flagship Council in Wandsworth and Westminster. Labor insists these are still unlikely targets, but hopes to take the Child in north London, which has been largely Tory-controlled since its formation in 1964 (with a Labor-Liberal Democrat coalition ruling between 1994) and 2002).
Outside the capital, the Tories are hoping to make progress in places like Sandwell in the West Midlands, where they took parliamentary seats in the 2019 parliamentary elections, but are far behind Labor at council level.
Conservative MPs will follow developments in their constituencies closely, and progress for the opposition parties points to potential problems in a future parliamentary election.
However, a senior source from the Tory party downplayed the risk that this could lead to new problems for Johnson, saying: “It is well known that local elections can be used as a protest vote.”
The Liberal Democrats had made modest progress in the disgraced former MP Owen Paterson’s seat in North Shropshire in the recent local elections, before toppling a nearly 23,000 majority to remove the Conservatives last year.
Labor sources say their number crunchers will monitor council results particularly closely in 50 key parliamentary seats that the party believes it must win to win the next election – including Stevenage, Bury North and South and Glasgow.
“If we have an evening where we show the right kind of progress in the kind of places where we have to win in the next election, it’s good for us,” they said, adding that Labor would also be happy if Tory- MPs continue to postpone Johnson’s future given his poor personal assessments.
Dowden told conservative activists at his party’s spring conference in Blackpool that Johnson saw these local elections as the start of a two-year campaign building up for the next parliamentary election.
The Prime Minister told reporters on his way to India on his recent trip that he fully intends to fight for the next parliamentary elections and could not imagine resigning due to the scandal with the Downing Street parties.
But some backers are concerned that the government seems to be running out of ideas. A brainstorming session in the Cabinet on the cost of living earlier in the week, which resulted in few concrete ideas other than making MOTs bi-annually – a plan that was quickly rejected by motorist group AA.
Meanwhile, Chancellor Rishi Sunak appeared to be flirting with Labor policy on an unexpected tax on energy companies this week after repeatedly rejecting it.
This article was last modified on 30 April. The article originally said the Tories are hoping to make progress in places including Stoke-on-Trent in the West Midlands. This has been fixed.