As the emotions subside the hard reality kicks in – aftermath of Boris Johnson’s confidence vote

Politics

Boris Johnson may have been addressing the opposition benches at PMQ’s on Wednesday when he told the Commons that “absolutely nothing and no-one” was going to stop him from getting on with his job, but his real audience was his own MPs.

In his first public appearance since the bruising vote of confidence on Monday, Mr Johnson wanted to make it clear that 148 of his own side calling on him to go – 4 out of 10 Tory MPs – was not going to dent or diminish him, as he bellowed from the dispatch box that he would continue with his mission to level up and unite the country.

But the question in Westminster is whether he has any hope in re-uniting a party which has spent weeks in open civil war culminating in an excruciating public slanging match between serving cabinet minister Nadine Dorries and the former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt on Monday, after the latter’s call for change prompted the culture secretary to declare he was “duplicitous” and “wrong about almost everything”.

As the emotions subside the hard reality kicks in.

Mr Johnson’s detractors have not managed to unseat him, while the Prime Minister has failed to secure a decisive enough victory to reassert his authority.

The rebels, having lost the vote, and without a clear leader, are instead setting out new demands and asks for their embattled Prime Minister.

The calls for tax cuts, already getting louder against the backdrop of the cost-of-living crisis, are now constant.

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David Davis, the former cabinet minister, told me on Wednesday that the Prime Minister now had a year to turn things around and needs to cut taxes and reinvigorate the economy.

He said: “I would have much preferred a decisive outcome (in the vote) as it would have resolved things forever but I think now what we got to do is to make the best of where we are and get on with improving the state of the country because that’s our job but also because that will deliver us a victory in the next election if we do it properly.”

Mr Davis wants the PM to reverse the national insurance tax increases and cut corporation tax to help people with the cost of living and try to boost investment.

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What next for Boris Johnson?

“We’ve got to pick the growth rate up. We’ve got to get peoples incomes back up, we’ve got to solve people’s cost of living crises, the only way to do that is taking tens of billions off the taxpayer, that is a lot of money but you’ve got to do it.”

Mr Davis also said the PM has to deliver ‘ordinary decent public services’, such as making sure people could get hold of driving licences and passports, get an appointment with their GP.

“If he does these changes we have a decent chance. We are two years away so it’s hard to say but if we don’t do them, I’m reasonably sure we won’t win.”

For Aaron Bell, one of the leading agitators in the 2019 intake, the PM needs to bring those who opposed him back into the fold and make his cabinet more representative of the parliamentary party.

Mr Bell told me on Wednesday that, “having been a trenchant critic”, he now wants to give the PM “the space to reunite the party” and thinks the route to doing that is for the PM to bring some of those who voted against him back into government.

For Mr Bell that means bringing some of the sacked cabinet members back to the top table, be it the likes of Jeremy Hunt, Julian Smith, Greg Clarke, Damain Green, Damian Hinds or Penny Mordaunt.

“There should be representatives of the kind of people who have felt left out by this government. You don’t get to 148 votes from nowhere.”

These are some of the rebels’ calls. But will Mr Johnson heed them?

There is a wide expectation in Westminster that a reshuffle is on the way.

A moment of maximum power for any Prime Minister, it is a way for Boris Johnson to assert his authority and beyond the symbolism there is also the practical matter of the promises the PM might have made during those ‘chats’ with recalcitrant MPs, with a couple of MPs telling me that some of the 2019 red-wall intake have been promised government jobs in return for their loyalty.

The PM will also have to decide whether to punish those on his payroll who haven’t publicly pledged support, such as trade minister Penny Mordaunt and solicitor general Alex Chalk.

I’m told by No 10 insiders that there will be no reshuffle this month. But that doesn’t mean the PM won’t opt for one before the summer recess in July or the autumn.

And while in public the mood has calmed down, with each side retrenching, the atmosphere is lousy, with one MP complaining to me this week that the party had found itself in “the worst possible of worlds”.

“It’s neither a decisive win or a clear defeat. It draws a line under nothing.”

Mr Johnson undoubtedly has the momentum for now.

He remains Prime Minister and the rebellion has been seen off even if the civil war rumbles on.

But there are two obvious flashpoints on the horizon.

The first comes in June when the Prime Minister faces the prospect for losing two by-elections – one in the red wall of Wakefield to Labour and a second in the blue wall to the Lib Dems, a moment that will further rattle MPs worried about losing their seats under Mr Johnson, and rather blunt his oft-repeated phrase that Mr Johnson is a Conservative vote winner.

The second, and potentially extremely serious, moment will come in the autumn when the privileges committee gives their verdict on whether the Prime Minister knowingly mislead parliament when he insisted on the floor of the House of Commons that no rules were broken in Downing Street during the lockdowns.

We now know – as Johnson ally Jacob Rees Mogg told me on Beth Rigby Interviews last week – that this is wrong, with 129 fines issued to 83 people.

But Mr Rees-Mogg argues that the PM will be exonerated because the Prime Minister, in his view, didn’t knowingly mislead the House of Commons.

There are many MPs who do not agree and think Boris Johnson’s time could be up if the Prime Minister ends up being sanctioned by the Privileges Committee.

“At that point there will be a fight,” says one Conservative figure. “If he won’t resign, it will be left to cabinet ministers to take a stand.”

This then a reason why the Prime Minister might be reluctant to reinsert old enemies and adversaries into his top team.

Because this Tory civil war ignited by Partygate, but which carries with it older political grudges between Mr Johnson and some of his rivals too, is simmering rather than extinguished and, at the right moment in the political cycle, a cabinet resignation could prove explosive.

The rebels, by triggering the vote before a point of maximum danger – the by-elections and the conclusion of the privileges committee investigation – have bought Mr Johnson valuable time to try to turn around his fortunes.

But don’t mistake the momentary laying down of arms between rebels and No 10 as the end of this civil war.

MPs are now issuing down new demands which could become new battlelines in the weeks to come.

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