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When the Tory whips found last week they couldn’t rally enough support to defeat Labour’s call for a Commons privileges committee investigation into whether the Prime Minister had misled parliament, it looked as if the time might have come.
And when senior backbenchers like former chief whip Mark Harper and arch-Brexiteer Steve Baker called on him to go, it signalled momentum could be building.
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The anger over Partygate and the blatant flouting by Downing Street of the government’s own Covid rules, partying while the nation at large was making sacrifices to observe the restrictions, had died down after Russia invaded Ukraine and the appalling plight of people in besieged cities sheltering in basements from sustained shelling dominated the headlines.
In the Commons, the Prime Minister said he apologised “unreservedly” – but still claimed it had not occurred to him it was breaking the law to be in the Cabinet room with more than 30 other people singing him “Happy Birthday” and eating cake at a time when Covid rules banned indoor gatherings of more than two people.
Labour leader Keir Starmer did not hold back: “What a joke. Even now, as the latest mealy-mouthed apology stumbles out of one side of his mouth, a new set of deflections and distortions pour from the other. But the damage is done. The public have made up their minds. They don’t believe a word the Prime Minister says. They know what he is.”
“Liar” is normally regarded as unparliamentary language and MPs get suspended for using it. But it spoke volumes that when the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford called the Prime Minister a liar last week Speaker Lindsay Hoyle ignored Tory protests and allowed him to continue.
Short of an election, Tory MPs are the only ones who can remove Mr Johnson and some reports suggest the number calling for a vote of confidence is increasing.
But even if backbenchers’ patience with Mr Johnson is wearing thin, there are problems with dumping him. The biggest is the lack of an obvious successor.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak used to be seen as the man who could take over, but he too was fined for Mr Johnson’s birthday party and the revelation of his wife’s non-dom status, allowing her to dodge taxes while he made everyone else pay more, has ruined his prospects of the succession.
Local elections taking place across Britain next week could prove crucial in determining the Prime Minister’s fate and polls suggest a dramatic fall in Tory support in “Red Wall” seats in the north of England where the party made major gains from Labour at the 2019 general election. There’s also a parliamentary by-election expected in June in Tory-held “Red Wall” Wakefield.
But if they choose, the Tories can try to explain away poor performances in these contests as predictable mid-term defeats. There doesn’t need to be a general election until 2024.
In the absence of an attractive alternative, they may decide to follow Mr Johnson’s own example, ignore public opinion and let him carry on regardless.