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Some 41 per cent of his own MPs had just said they wanted a change of leader, but the Prime Minister claimed it was "an extremely good, positive, conclusive, decisive result which enables us to move on, to unite and to focus on delivery".
When Margaret Thatcher was challenged for the Tory leadership by Michael Heseltine in 1990, she won just over half the votes in the first ballot and insisted: "I fight on, I fight to win." But two days later – after a chance to reflect and be told by Cabinet ministers it was time to go – she quit, bringing to an end her 11 years in Downing Street.
There is no chance that Boris Johnson will follow her example. He is shrugging off this setback just as he shrugs off everything else – from the Supreme Court ruling that he acted unlawfully in proroguing parliament to the Metropolitan Police issuing him with a fine for breaking his own lockdown laws with the parties in Downing Street.
He cares nothing for anyone else’s judgement of him and is determined to carry on regardless.
His plan now is to try to pretend Partygate has been dealt with – forgetting about the investigation still to be carried out by the Commons privileges committee into whether he deliberately misled parliament – and launch a supposed fightback. So far, that has consisted of a speech on housing billed as a major policy initiative but criticised as reheated ideas from past Conservative governments, and a White Paper on food policy notable only for failing to take up any of the bold measures recommended in two government-commissioned reports.
Next week two by-elections will be held in Tory-held seats which the party is predicted to lose. Significantly, they represent two contrasting parts of the country which were key to the Tories' 2019 election victory but where it seems voters are now turning against them. Wakefield was one of the "Red Wall" seats in the north of England which the party took from Labour. Tiverton and Honiton in Devon is more traditional Tory territory now being targeted by the Lib Dems. Some say a double defeat has already been "priced in" to the assessment of the Prime Minister’s position, but such an outcome will still worry lots of Tory MPs looking ahead to the next election.
Boris Johnson only became Tory leader in 2019 because he was seen as a winner, a Conservative who could reach parts of the electorate others in the party could never appeal to. Many Tory MPs backed him even though they did not like him. The party was in a mess, mired in the Brexit stalemate, and they saw him as the person who would get them out of that and had the best chance of getting them re-elected thereafter.
They knew what he was like, but it was a case of “needs must when the devil drives” – there seemed little alternative, so they swallowed hard and voted him into Number Ten. They cannot be surprised at the course of events since then.
And now their fateful choice is coming home to roost. They are discovering that bad decisions have consequences.