Will Boris Johnson resign? 8 questions on the prime minister's future answered

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Will Boris Johnson resign? 8 questions on the prime minister’s future answered
© UK Parliament/Getty Boris Johnson

Will he stay or will he go? As ‘partygate’ rumbles on, Boris Johnson’s future as PM continues to hang in the balance.

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To round off the week that saw a Tory MP defect to Labour, others plot to overthrow him and former cabinet colleague David Davis telling him “in the name of God, go”, The Independent’s chief political commentator John Rentoul answered reader questions on the PM’s future.

During an ‘Ask Me Anything’, Rentoul said: “What is significant about the past few weeks is that large numbers of voters who liked him have now gone off him. Many of them feel strongly, and that has been reflected in MPs’ emails – to which they are acutely sensitive (probably too much so). That is why I think Tory MPs will get rid of him, even though it is only two years since he delivered a huge election victory and Brexit.”

What is the most likely road map for Boris Johnson’s departure?

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It is hard to predict, and I have taken a risk in making my prediction [Tory MPs should ditch Boris Johnson and put Rishi Sunak in No 10 as soon as they can], but I think the route is the 54 letters asking for a vote of confidence, which I think Johnson will lose – because in a secret ballot enough Tory MPs will calculate that he is unlikely to recover sufficient popularity to win the next election, AND that if they leave him in office he may do such damage to the party that switching leader later may not save them.

You are right, I think, that Johnson will not go quietly. Nor I think is he likely to go for the Blair tactic of promising to go at some point. So if he survives a vote of confidence, it will be a long damaging struggle, which I think he would be likely to lose before the next election.

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If the 54 letters don’t materialise, of course, then his chances are much better. Once Tory MPs realise that other Tory MPs are cowards, they will have in effect have decided to let him have two years to try to recover the situation.

If the May booze up in the No 10 garden was a business meeting, what was Carrie Johnson doing there?

The legal situation is more complicated than some of the prime minister’s critics allow. Carrie Johnson was allowed to be in the garden of her home, and the PM might have been allowed to attend a gathering there if it was “reasonably necessary for work”. Mixing the two exemptions from the requirement to stay at home may seem to be stretching the law, but the situation in Downing Street is unusual.

How has Rishi Sunak at Number avoided any of the blame for these Covid breaches?

I think The Times reported one alleged gathering in the Treasury (25 November 2020) to celebrate completing the Autumn Spending Review, and there have been questions asked about when Sunak or his staff were ever working in No 11 while carousing was going on next door or in the garden. But one of Sunak’s strong personal defences is that he doesn’t drink.

Do you think the Met’s refusal to investigate any of this is cutting through with the public as a cover-up?

Yes, I think it is. Opinion polls suggest people think that the police should investigate; and a focus group I heard wanted politicians to be fined if they had broken lockdown laws. On the other hand, most members of that focus group were not particularly angry with Johnson; they were more concerned that he shouldn’t be distracted from focusing on the NHS and energy bills.

Is it a very cunning plan by the Labour Party to accept a defecting Tory MP, which in turn solidifies support for Johnson amongst remaining Conservative MPs? And makes it more likely they would be fighting Johnson at the next election rather than Sunak. Or is that just too cunning by half?

That is too cunning by half, I think. Keir Starmer was right to say in a recent interview that he can only fight the opponent in front of him. Labour can do things at the edges, such as spending some time attacking Rishi Sunak, and the really important thing – which Labour failed to do when Thatcher fell in 1990 – is to change approach to match the change of opponent. But no, I don’t think Labour even realised that Christian Wakeford’s defection would temporarily unite the Tories in the Commons – an MP’s defection is the hard currency of politics; it is so valuable to receiving party that it cannot risk playing games with it.

Do you think there is any possibility that Johnson deep down knows that the game is up and that part of him is beginning to consider what happens to him after being PM? (I partly ask this as it seems to me he must be aware that more revelations and evidence are very likely to emerge shortly.)

I remember a Labour MP once said that they saw Johnson coming towards them, muttering to himself as if he were composing three columns at once in his head: I think he has a wide, chaotic, semi-compartmentalised personality, capable of thinking several things at the same time. All prime ministers fear that they are about to be turfed out of office at any time, and I’m sure he thinks vaguely about finishing his book on Shakespeare and about his post-PM career, but most of his mind is probably focused on fighting to hold on to office for as long as possible.

As for more evidence of wrongdoing, I think that if his most committed opponents had it, they would use it. I do not believe in the idea of some great plot to drip-drip information into the public domain until he’s gone. Many of the stories have seeped out in a chaotic, disorganised way, often triggered by other leaks, or by official denials.

Although there is clearly a lot of discontent with Boris, do you think that the potential successors have the desire to become PM right now? There are so many massive hurdles to overcome. If no-one wants the poisoned chalice, could Boris survive?

Ideally, most Tory MPs and most candidates for the succession would rather wait until next year, when the 2024 election is imminent and the situation is clearer. But Tory MPs know that they may not get another chance – or at least, not in such potentially favourable circumstances – to change leader, and that if they leave Johnson in power he might seriously damage the Tory brand.

And Rishi Sunak faces the classic front runner’s dilemma: for him, most of the risks of delay are on the downside. He is currently the most popular politician in the country, among Tory members and among Tory MPs. For him, things can only get worse, especially given the outlook for inflation, energy prices and taxes. Sunak must want to take the chance when he can, but he cannot do more to bring it about than a day trip to Ilfracombe while the PM is defending himself in the Commons, because the party members have not yet given up on Johnson, and will resent any more overt show of disloyalty.

What intrigues me most is the timing of the drip-feed of leaks of the ‘partygate’ scandal. Who or what is driving this?

This is a very good question, which I answered in part already. I don’t think there is an orchestrated campaign beyond what we know, which is that Dominic Cummings, the PM’s former chief adviser, is determined to bring down his former boss. But Cummings did his best last May, when he gave evidence (for seven hours) to the joint select committee about what he thought was Johnson’s mishandling of the pandemic and his “possibly illegal” plan to have Tory donors pay to refurbish the Downing Street flat.

But you are right to ask why there was such a long delay between the 2020 Christmas parties in No 10 and the reports, first in The Mirror on 1 December 2021. (All that time Allegra Stratton, the PM’s former spokesperson, knew there was a video of her embarrassing answers about a Christmas party at a rehearsal for a TV news briefing.)

I think the explanation is that civil servants don’t leak unless they think a politician has done something seriously wrong: in these cases most of the people who organised and attended these “work events” were civil servants and special advisers; they may not have thought they did anything wrong, or were uncertain.

But once the stories started to come out, a kind of chain reaction happened.

These questions and answers were part of an ‘Ask Me Anything’ hosted by John Rentoul at 1pm on Friday 21 January. Some of the questions and answers have been edited for this article. You can read the full discussion in the comments section of the original article.

Do you have any topics you’d like to see an expert host an ‘Ask Me Anything’ on? Let us know your suggestions in the comments below.

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