The regicidal Tories won’t oust Boris until a successor steps up

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The Conservatives have long been the natural party of regicide which is, right now, what is keeping Boris Johnson in place. A more impulsive party might have thrown him out, simply as an act of rage. Regicide experts know that success means lining up a successor, making sure the transition would work. It means asking hard questions such as: is Liz Truss really the answer? Could Rishi Sunak win the north? Are either ready? And if not, are we really so sure that the Boris project is unsalvageable?

It’s striking how many Tory MPs, even his erstwhile supporters, now consider the damage irreparable. It was, in the end, his decision that the elderly should be unvisited in care homes and families could not meet for funerals during lockdowns. For him to then host a “bring your own booze” party in his garden, when he was asking police to prosecute anyone who did the same, was indefensible. It may yet prove to have been, under his own rules, a criminal act.

His general dalliance with illiberal Conservatism (the vaccine passports, the highest taxes in 71 years) has at least given his party a clear view of what they want next: someone who practises what Johnson used to preach. A low-tax, socially liberal leader whose instinct is to trust the public more, tax them less and not abandon such principles when under pressure. The most likely options now are Truss, the self-styled “freedom fighter” and Sunak, who said it was time to “live without fear” after the first lockdown.

But this week hasn’t resolved the doubts about them. To use Johnson’s analogy, the ball has come loose from the scrum and is lying on the pitch, while others gawp. Sunak’s silence after the Prime Minister’s apology on Wednesday was, to his critics, telling. “He never wants to get his hands dirty,” says one minister. “Look how quiet he was, disappearing when things got tough.” This fits with a general criticism of him: too dainty to be a real leader. Lacking the steel, the killer instinct, the raw blonde ambition which Johnson and Truss so vividly embody.

The Foreign Secretary has also found more enemies this week. After months of coming first in opinion polls of party activists, she’d be well-placed to win any leadership race decided by them. This is focusing minds in Westminster. “She’s a method actor,” says one MP. “She plays the role of a high-achiever without any actual achievements.” Others are crueller still, disparaging her as an Instagram poseur who has never had to deliver the free-market vision that she dangles.

It’s a Tory tradition: poison darts being readied, blown towards anyone who looks like they may be heading towards the throne. In part, it’s an exercise: does the candidate have allies who will defend them? How vulnerable are they to internal attack? How well organised are they? This is Michael Gove’s pitch: his allies say that he has “been through the mill” with no more scandals to be unveiled. Jeremy Hunt, who came second last time, stands ready to revive his campaign any time.

In truth, none of these candidates could plausibly promise to replicate the Johnson project. For all of his faults as a Prime Minister he is an incomparable campaigner, who brought together a coalition of northern ex-Labour voters and Tory southerners under a Brexity umbrella. Those worried about Chichester might think the suave Sunak would best reassure their voters — but how well would he go down in Dudley, Hull or Stockton? Ms Truss has been making friends with the new northern Tories, but could she promise to keep spending up while putting taxes down?

The Johnson electoral coalition may not just be unique to him, but unique to the politics of December 2019. Then, the Tories had “get Brexit done” to lure Leave voters and a fear of Corbyn to assuage southern Remainers. Now, some opinion polls say even Johnson would not take the red wall seats again. Meanwhile the Scots are in open revolt against him (27 of the 30 Tory politicians now calling for him to resign are in Holyrood).

I take a slightly different view on Sunak: he is silent because he isn’t in “running mode” and doesn’t think there will be a leadership race any time soon. As a teetotal, he will have found partygate difficult to defend — hence his silence. He is also under close observation, with his every move and speech scrutinised by a wisely-fearful No 10 which, increasingly, briefs against him. But if he wanted to move for the leadership now, we’d have seen more of a sign.

My hunch about Liz Truss is that she loves the speculation about her becoming Prime Minister, but finds it more amusing than prophetic. Neither are ready to move into No 10 in the spring, a timeline which doesn’t suit those who want Johnson gone before the May local elections.

And that’s the problem: it’s not a simply a question about whether the Prime Minister should quit. It’s a trade-off: who would do better? Might that person win the leadership? And with the Tories a far-from-hopeless six points behind Labour, is it really worth the gamble?

A candidate without a machine can always go to Gavin Williamson, the former Defence Secretary, who recently moved into a suspiciously large, almost campaign-ready office in Westminster. He tends to back winning candidates. But however angry the Tory party is with Johnson it is not ready — or even close to being ready — for a leadership contest that may well result in mutually-assured destruction. It risks becoming a rerun of the post-Brexit leadership election, where Theresa May walked into No 10 after her rivals had taken each other out.

Johnson may yet recover: if omicron keeps falling, he could abolish all Covid rules this month (including the plan to sack 70,000 unjabbed NHS staff) and go all-out on a “rebuild” theme and place his hope in local elections. His penance for his garden party could be a pardon (and repaying the fines) of those prosecuted under his lockdown rules.

He will not be forgiven by his party: things are too far gone for that. But he may yet persuade them that he is still, for now at least, the least bad option.

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