Boris Johnson is distinguished by his attitude towards risk, which is one of many traits that distinguish him from his political contemporaries.
Boris Johnson seems to love risk.
This is the man who stumbled upon the opportunity to turn his stuttering political career around by entering the race for London mayor. He took on a Labour-leaning municipality. This is the man who chose Remain to be the leading Brexiter at a time when it was in the polls. This is the prime minster who was willing to face media and legal opinion in order to prorogue parliament, and to encourage an early election. This was the late 2020 national leader, later photographed with an alcohol-free Heineken on his desk, and he was happy to take the 2020 Brexit negotiations into extra time.
Boris Johnson believes that taking a chance is a strategy that pays off.
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Now facing the gravest peril of his political career, don’t be surprised if this most brazen of political leaders, is about to cue another high-risk plan.
Boris Johnson will be on the offensive after the May elections. It will start with a far stronger defense of both his actions as well as his premiership.
Soon after, brace yourselves for Boris, standing phlegmatically on the steps of Downing Street, to announce that he himself has written to Sir Graham Brady requesting a ‘vote of confidence’ from his parliamentary colleagues. Here, he will declare that the uncertainty about his premiership is over.
In a move mirroring John Major’s 1995 actions, this will be Johnson’s very own ‘back me’ or ‘sack me’ moment.
Do you find this sound far-fetched. You might be right, but keep reading.
Can Boris Johnson really initiate a vote against confidence?
This question would be answered with a knee-jerk no. Perhaps that is why no one is discussing this idea yet.
The rules appear to state that Conservative leadership elections can only be triggered if 15% of Conservative MPs write to the chair of the party’s 1922 committee stating that they no longer have confidence in the party leader, or, if the current leader resigns.
Schedule 2 (Point 2) of the 2009 rules to elect the Conservative party leader makes clear that a resigning leader can’t be re-nominated for any subsequent leadership election. If Boris Johnson wishes to remain PM, he can’t therefore resign.
What happens if Boris Johnson refuses to resign and asks for a confidence voting?
Unlike the later stages of the election system for the Conservative party leader, the rules surrounding the ‘no confidence’ part of the process are not published in the public domain. According to the Institute of Government the rules surrounding this contest can be modified at any time by an executive of the 1922 committee, in consultation with the Conservative Party Board. It would be perfectly possible for the PM to request a vote of confidence.
At first glance, it appears that the 1922 committee’s executive offices are populated by MPs who are particularly hostile to Boris Johnson (William Wragg and Nus Ghani; Gary Sambrook; Sir Geoffrey Clifton Brown etc ). Yet could these proverbial folks in grey suits really thwart the PM’s request, if it is so publicly delivered, and couched in the interests of combating the national uncertainty which is afflicting good governance.
Even if they were motivated, they may not be able to do so. MPs who fervently support the PM, of which there are still plenty, could declare that they are topping up the number of ‘no confidence’ letters in order to facilitate the PM’s ‘perfectly reasonable’ appeal that this matter now be brought to a conclusion.
Sound dramatic? Think back to the prorogation and power of Parliament. Boris Johnson ‘does’ dramatic.
Boris Johnson would not call a vote against confidence.
Politics.co.uk’s analysis revealed that there are already enough hostile Conservative MPs to vote against the prime minister.
However, it is not clear that the PM’s opponents have the majority they need to expel him from No.10. It is reasonable to assume that many letters will remain on ice until they do.
Come early May, a deluge of fresh cannon balls will be heading in the prime minister’s direction. There are also the possibility of more police fines. These will be followed up by the publication in all its ghastly glory of the Gray report. There are also the chances of ministerial resignations and internal party wobbling based on poor local elections results.
But unless it happens by accident (which it might), the PM’s opponents may still lack the confidence to strike.
Boris, the gambler would strike in this void. On the surface, it would seem that he has good reasons to do so.
1. Take control
2018 was the year Theresa May was forced to vote no confidence after the letter threshold was exceeded. As it turned out, she was able to see the value in that challenge. For any party leader, however, the benefits of initiating your own contest are undoubtedly better than having one forced on you.
Boris Johnson believes that if a vote is inevitable, why not pretend you are bringing it on yourself?
This would be a way to regain control over events. It could take people by surprise and do so before many of his opponents were properly organized. It may win him additional support within the parliamentary party as a strong act of leadership.
2. Maximizing your chances for victory
Whilst there are no guarantees that Boris Johnson would win an imminent vote of no confidence, there are good reasons to believe that the sooner the contest, the greater Johnson’s chances of success.
Many Conservative MPs have stated that the time is not right to be changing leaders because of the war in Ukraine. It is unclear how strong that line will hold in secret ballots, but there is a possibility that events in South East Europe could provide the PM with 20-30 votes that he may not be able rely on later in this year.
In opinion polls, the Conservatives are still not far behind Labour. This deficit is currently trending at 4.4%. This gap could grow as the partygate saga continues. And more importantly, as energy prices and interest rates continue rising, this gap could get worse. Conservative MPs from marginal or semi-marginal constituencies may still feel that Boris is a good choice for their political future. They may not feel the exact same thing in the autumn.
Most importantly, there is currently no Conservative party leader in the waiting. This is a stark contrast to the leadership contests between Margaret Thatcher & Theresa May when the likes Michael Heseltine and Boris Johnson were there to swap in.
The chancellor appears to be severely wounded as of today. The foreign secretary is considered a bit stoic and not popular with the public. The home secretary is a non-starter. The home secretary is a non starter. The health secretary, who has been at forefront of politics for almost a decade, suddenly faces scrutiny over his tax affairs from twenty-years ago. The field has no other options.
British politics lacks big animals more than any time in the last 50 years. Where there may have been a viable alternative two months ago, and where one could still emerge later in the year, right now there isn’t an abundance of choice. This is good news for Boris Johnson. As they cast their ballots in May’s election, Tory MPs will be forced ask themselves, “If they press to expel Boris Johnson, what happens then?”
3. Regaining control of his premiership
Boris Johnson will not be subject to any further contests if he wins a vote against confidence in May. This guarantee gives him the breathing space he requires.
Johnson may feel that victory over his parliamentary colleagues gives him the right to draw a distinction between his current struggles.
The parliamentary Conservative party may feel that it must accept the fact that they cannot depose their leader. The leadership saga will be resolved and the media will be forced move on. Public attention could shift to other topics. The prime minister will be able to reshuffle the cabinet in his own image, as close as possible. Boris Johnson will be institutionally safer when the commons prives committee reports on whether the PM misled parliament.
The prime minister and his family will be able, over the 12 month period to make the most of the Chequers ornamental sofas.
The peak of the covid crisis will have passed three years by the time their annual pass expires. Because of the nature of partygate there is no guarantee that this wound will heal. However, a general election campaign is still only 10 months away. Potentially too near for further introspection, Johnson’s parliamentary colleagues may then gravitate forwards not backwards.
Boris Johnson would win a vote of no confidence next month?
The events that occur will have an impact on how Conservative MPs vote. These include the number of fines issued, the content and attitude of voters.
This website’s analysis suggests that 152 Conservative MPs are currently supportive of the prime minster, despite being 359 of them. If you allow for the double-dealing in politics and considering the upcoming events, it seems reasonable to assume Boris Johnson will enter any contest that has a minimum level of support from 135 MPs.
To win, the PM would need 45 more supporters from the remaining 225 colleagues. The PM would need to secure only a fifth of the pool, with 67 of them clearly off-limits. Another 57 are showing signs that they are concerned. This is not guaranteed. These colleagues are not backing him publicly for a reason. But he doesn’t need them all.
Right now, the gambling prime minister might assume he has a better than ‘evens’ chance of victory. These odds might not be so favorable come the summer or the fall.
One step ahead
From what we have observed of Boris Johnson, this is not a man who does ‘lying limply’ in the stocks.
Are we to believe that the PM will continue to get lashed daily, or is it possible to expect him to just sit there and collect welts until they reach their inevitable mortal threshold.
Perhaps one reason that Boris Johnson’s public demeanor remains cheery, such that he seems so outwardly able to withstand the daily evisceration that he is enduring, is because he is already one step ahead.
He knows what his next move is.
He is the ultimate political gambler. He is comfortable with the risk and the odds.
Even if this gamble of ‘high politics’ goes against him, he will have done his best to change the historical narrative. Boris Johnson would rather have offered his colleagues an option than being unceremoniously dragged out of office. If they deposed him and the Conservatives lost subsequent elections, that would be their mistake. They should have stayed with him because he is a proven winner.
This is speculation.
But if you somehow existed in the mind of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, isn’t this exactly the sort of strategy, with which you would feel at home?
William Bracken serves as the Commissioning Editor at Politics.co.uk
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