Conservative MPs hoping to force a no-confidence vote in Boris Johnson fear the failure of a leader to step forward to organise a challenge will allow him to escape.
Rebel Tories have told The Independent of their growing despair at their colleagues’ refusal to “confront” the crisis in their party – highlighting the absence of a figurehead to coordinate a campaign and rally doubters.
One former minister expressed astonishment that Mr Johnson had avoided a reckoning despite “disastrous” local election results, but warned: “There is no leadership; nobody wants to step forward.”
A second echoed that “nobody wants to be seen as a leader” of a plot against the prime minister, adding: “Colleagues know it can’t go [on like] this, but everybody looks at their feet when I ask what we are going to do.”
A third said there were hopes that Jeremy Hunt, the defeated 2019 leadership candidate – who opposes a contest being held while war rages in Ukraine – would speak out, and asked: “Who is going to lead the letter-writing?”
Another former minister has told their constituents that the push to topple Mr Johnson has “failed” because fellow MPs have stayed silent.
The Independent was told of a recent private meeting where a group of Tory MPs “bitched about Boris”, only to join in with the laughter when the prime minister joined the meeting and cracked jokes.
There are fears that it will be impossible to defend Mr Johnson on the doorstep if Sir Keir Starmer resigns over his beer-and-curry gathering in Durham last year, which he has promised to do if he is fined by police.
“How will I face my constituents if Starmer has quit but our leader, despite multiple fines, is still there?” one of the former ministers said.
The rising frustration comes after the event that was thought most likely to trigger a leadership challenge – a mauling in the local elections – has come and gone, yet the prime minister’s position appears, for now, to be safe.
His aides are said to be “buoyant about the future” and to believe that the prime minister is close to being out of danger because “the sky hasn’t fallen in”.
The Conservatives lost almost 500 seats and control of 12 councils in the 5 May elections – one of the party’s most dire performances, in which it did worse than most predictions.
But only around 15 Tory MPs have called for Mr Johnson to go, or revealed that they have submitted letters demanding a no-confidence vote, and the tally has not risen since the results of the elections were announced.
Some 54 letters are needed to trigger the vote, after which the prime minister would be forced to resign if he failed to win the support of more than half of the party’s 359 MPs.
Many MPs say they are waiting to see whether he receives more police fines for the No 10 lockdown parties, or are holding off for the publication of Sue Gray’s final report into the scandal – but some rebels fear that the momentum will be lost.
The belief underlines the fragile links between the various Tory tribes – the One Nation group, the hard-Brexit backers who put Mr Johnson in No 10, and the 2019 newcomers, who owe their success to his leadership.
Former foreign secretary Mr Hunt, who is a member of the One Nation group, warned last week that the Tories have a “big mountain to climb” if they are to stay in power, but said that a leadership contest would be wrong “in the middle of a terrible war in Ukraine”.
Steve Baker, the former Brexit minister who coordinated signatures to force a no-confidence vote in Theresa May’s leadership, has called for Mr Johnson to quit – but is not actively plotting this time.
“If Jeremy came out and said he had seen enough evidence [against Mr Johnson], that might make the difference,” one MP suggested.
Another said of his constituents: “My people are saying ‘Anyone but Boris’ – but when I ask who should replace him, my fellow MPs go quiet.”
One of the former ministers said: “I try to impress on my colleagues that, in deciding to do nothing, they are making an active decision to stick with Boris at the next election.”
Another has warned their colleagues: “The problem at the moment is him, but it could easily be all of us if we are not careful – because the whole party will be totally contaminated.”