Boris Johnson’s recent run of form has prompted so much criticism and incredulity that Labour leader Sir Kir Starmer made a point of wryly enquiring about his health during Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday.
“Who knows if he’ll make it to the next election but, if he does, how does he expect anyone to take him and his promises seriously?” he sneered before accusing Mr Johnson of breaking his manifesto promises to taxpayers on social care reform.
That followed weeks of the prime minister being dogged by “Tory sleaze” allegations surrounding Owen Paterson and then his former attorney Sir Geoffrey Cox and uproar over his rumoured plan to scrap the Northern Ireland Protocol and his cancellation of the northern leg of HS2.
This crisis period culminated in a disastrous speech to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) Annual Conference on Monday, in which Mr Johnson imitated a revving car engine, waxed lyrical about a recent trip to Peppa Pig World and lost his place in his notes, spending an excruciating 21 seconds desperately rifling through loose pages and muttering apologies.
The assembled executives were left perplexed, having attended in the hope of hearing something constructive about the state of Britain’s stumbling economic recovery, post-Brexit trading conditions and the ongoing disruption to the supply chain caused by Covid-19 and the HGV driver shortage.
For some of the prime minister’s own Conservative MPs, enough is enough.
A dozen backbenchers are said to have written to Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee, expressing their discontent with Mr Johnson’s recent performances, with one senior MP telling The Sun: “There is real anger. He has until Spring to get back on track or he will be in real trouble.”
Tory whips have meanwhile told The Telegraph there was an “assumption” that no confidence letters had been written, while another dismissed the rebellion as just “the usual suspects” stirring up trouble.
“It will not get anywhere near the 50 letters you would need, but it does cause angst,” the unnamed whip told the newspaper.
Under Conservative Party rules, a leadership contest is triggered if 15 per cent of sitting Conservative MPs write to its executive committee, whose 18 members meet weekly to discuss party affairs, demanding a change at the top.
Currently, that would equate to 54 letters from the party’s pool of 360 MPs, meaning the present rate of discontent is insufficient to trigger a contest, so the whip is right to be unconcerned. For now.
Having said that, no confidence letters are handed in confidentially under party rules, so there is no accurate, publicly available tally of how many have been submitted.
Should Sir Graham eventually receive enough to proceed, the prime minister would then need to secure 50 per cent of the vote to survive, without which he would be forced to step down.
If he were to secure a majority, his prize would be the guarantee of a full-year’s immunity from further no-confidence challenges, potentially giving him time to steady the ship, rebuild alliances and strengthen his grip over the parliamentary party.
Dominic Raab, the PM’s deputy, responded to Wednesday morning’s dramatic headlines by dismissing them on LBC as “Westminster tittle-tattle”, insisting that his boss is “an ebullient, bouncy, optimistic, Tiggerish character and he livens up his speeches in a way that few politicians past and present have done but actually there is a steeliness to him as a prime minister and indeed his team, and we work as a team.”
Which is all very well, but being roundly mocked by Ant and Dec on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! is a blow to the hopes of any political leader expecting to be taken seriously.