‘Boris Johnson is like a disease’: Inside a Tory party shell-shocked by ‘horrific’ double defeat

Female MPs who reported colleague for viewing porn also blamed for their party’s plight. ‘I don’t know why the girls had to speak out like that,’ says one Tory. Another suggested the witnesses would ‘feel like a turd in the swimming pool’

‘Boris Johnson is like a disease’: Inside a Tory party shell-shocked by ‘horrific’ double defeat

Boris Johnson arriving at a Commonwealth summit in Rwanda (Photo: Clement Uwiringiymana/Reuters)

By Hugo Gye, Arj Singh, Richard Vaughan

Six years to the day after Boris Johnson led the Leave campaign to victory in the EU referendum, he suffered his biggest electoral blow yet with the loss of two crunch by-elections.

The symbolism is impossible to ignore, and also entirely self-inflicted: it was the Conservatives who chose to hold the Wakefield and Tiverton & Honiton contests on Thursday 23 June, which not only is the anniversary of the Brexit referendum but had also long been pencilled in as the first day of the Commonwealth summit in Rwanda.

That meant that the Prime Minister was 4,000 miles away when he learned of the double defeat – and, even more woundingly, of the resignation of party chairman Oliver Dowden, who has long been one of Mr Johnson’s staunchest public supporters.

Conservative party chairman Oliver Dowden resigned after the disastrous by-election defeats (Photo: John Sibley/Reuters)

He received a call from Mr Dowden on Friday morning as he returned to his hotel room in Kigali after a swim. A senior party source suggested Mr Johnson was left wondering “what has changed” between the party chair helping to prepare him for Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, and his resignation less than 48 hours later.

The Prime Minister immediately called Chancellor Rishi Sunak, an ally of Mr Dowden, and Chief Whip Chris Heaton-Harris to discuss the next steps – and work out which minister would replace the chairman on the morning broadcast round. But controversially, he will not be back in the UK for nearly another week because of the G7 and Nato summits in Germany and Spain respectively, potentially giving unhappy colleagues free rein to plot against him.

“He is not going to leave, this is too important,” an ally told i, insisting shunning the G7 would be an “abdication of responsibility” and not being at Nato “would be ridiculous”.

Back in Westminster, MPs were shellshocked by the heavy defeats – not so much in Wakefield, a classic marginal where Labour was always expected to win easily, but more in Tory stronghold of Tiverton & Honiton.

“They are going bloody mental on the WhatsApp group,” one veteran backbencher commented. “We didn’t think for one moment that we were going to lose that. Voters are lying on the doorstep, like they did in 1997.”

Conservative MP Neil Parish resigned as an MP after admitting to twice watching pornography in Parliament (Photo: BBC Politics South West/PA Wire)

The by-election was triggered by the resignation of former MP Neil Parish, who quit in disgrace when female colleagues saw him watching pornography in the House of Commons chamber. It was “not an ideal situation to put your standing as a party on the line”, one of the Prime Minister’s closest allies admitted.

Some Tories believe Mr Parish should never have stepped down – and even blame the women who reported him. “Parish shouldn’t have resigned,” one MP said. “He should have just gone away with his wife for a few weeks and then come back to the job. I don’t know why the girls had to speak out like that.”

Another suggested the witnesses would “feel like a turd in the swimming pool” after the party’s defeat in Tiverton – remarks likely to inflame tensions within the party, where many women already feel sidelined.

As the scale of the Tory collapse became clear on Thursday, MPs responded with dismay. One senior Tory described the results as “horrific”, adding: “Oliver’s words will resound throughout the party.”

Another backbencher warned Mr Johnson: “He will have to reset the Government in the next two or three weeks – he cannot let this go on into the summer.”

A third suggested that “the donors are going to kick off” and demand a change of leadership given that their funding is not leading to positive results. The defeats came only a few days after a lavish ball at the V&A Museum, where one wealthy Tory supporter paid £120,000 to have dinner with Mr Johnson, David Cameron and Theresa May.

Inside No 10, members of the Prime Minister’s team pointed the finger at the media for “feeding people a diet of Partygate” in recent months. Mr Johnson is “focused almost myopically” on the economy and cost of living, a source said, but “whenever he tries to set out a policy story he’s interrupted”. The frustrated insider added: “The endless reportage and Kremlinology of Partygate is nonsense.”

The thoughts of some are already turning to a possible leadership campaign, even though there remains no clarity on when that may take place. The current assumption is that a Cabinet insider – perhaps Liz Truss, Ben Wallace or Nadhim Zahawi – will face off against a centrist “one-nation” contender from the back benches such as Jeremy Hunt or Tom Tugendhat. One ally of Mr Hunt suggested the ex-Foreign Secretary could potentially end up as a consensus unity candidate in the same way that Michael Howard did in 2003.

But an election could only open up the divides within the party, some backbenchers fear – given the lack of agreement over whether to continue the high-tax, big-spending policies Mr Johnson has pursued so far, or whether to return to a small-state approach. “The advantage of Boris is that he does paper over the ideological cracks,” an MP said. “The moment he is not there, the party does have to pick a side.”

Potential candidates are already taking potshots at each other – speaking at the Conservative Home garden party on Wednesday, Mr Wallace joked about trade minister Penny Mordaunt: “Penny’s got three jobs, she’s in the reserves, she’s an MP and the leadership.”

Ms Truss is also regularly mocked by allies who accuse her of trying to imitate Margaret Thatcher in an attempt to increase the chance she makes it to No 10 eventually.

Unless Mr Johnson resigns of his own accord, an outcome seen as highly unlikely, the only way he can be ousted is if the 1922 Committee, which oversees the leadership, agrees to change the rules about how often he can be challenged. That makes the upcoming elections to the committee’s executive far more important than they usually would be, as a change in the balance of power on the 13-member body would affect how likely any rule change is.

The executive is currently divided roughly “50/50” over whether the leader should go, according to one member. Rebellious members of the 2019 intake are expected to stand – but they will be faced with a challenge from pro-Johnson backbenchers supported by the Government whips to bolster backing for the Prime Minister. The likely success of this tactic is uncertain: an attempt last year to replace chairman Sir Graham Brady with a more compliant figure, Heather Wheeler, was a flop and only ended up increasing Sir Graham’s authority.

Mr Johnson is adept at political makeovers, however, and carrying out another one – perhaps including a Cabinet reshuffle some time in July – may be his best hope for survival. A backbencher who is reluctantly backing the Prime Minister joked: “It is like an older bloke who no one likes but they suddenly get a new haircut, new set of clothes and a younger girlfriend and it stops people from remembering why they didn’t like him.”

The question for some Tories is whether the public’s disregard for Mr Johnson will spill over into animosity towards the Conservative party more generally.

“It’s like a disease,” one MP told i. “The Prime Minister is infecting the Cabinet, and if the Tory party doesn’t act in the next six months we will all be infected by him.”

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