Last year I calculated that the base rate for sitting prime ministers’ odds of fighting the next general election is lower than you might expect. When there is the potential for this to happen, prime ministers only end up fighting the election two-thirds of the time. Otherwise they are replaced beforehand.
Boris Johnson looked impregnable after his election victory in December 2019. The year or so since has not gone quite so well. Brexit has been completed, but this has taken a backseat to his government’s handling of the pandemic, with Conservative MPs voting against the lockdown restrictions and many of the public unimpressed.
Steve Baker, a noted backbench MP and leader of the European Research Group (ERG) which helped to oust Theresa May, has just written a letter to MPs complaining about the effects of lockdown. The key line is as follows:
If we continue forward with a strategy that hammers freedom, hammers the private sector, hammers small business owners and hammers the poor, inevitably the prime minister’s leadership will be on the table: we strongly do not want that after all we have been through as a country.
This may be the first explicit threat to Johnson’s leadership from a sitting Tory MP. Notably it follows not long after the Financial Times reported that two MPs elected in 2019 have submitted no confidence letters to the 1922 Committee of backbench MPs. If 15% of Conservative MPs – or 55 in the current parliament – submit these letters a leadership election would take place.
Coincidentally 55 Conservative MPs rebelled against the Covid tiering system when it was voted on in early December. The Guardian has also reported that the anti-lockdown Covid Recovery Group (CRG), where Baker is now deputy chair, has 70 members, although only 14 Tory MPs opposed the current national lockdown when it was voted on in early January. (Baker and 26 other Conservative MPs abstained.)
To my eye lockdown sceptics are a mixed risk for Johnson. There are clearly enough of them to deprive him of his governing majority, but where lockdown votes take place Labour is usually happy to support the government, being sympathetic to restrictions. The public is also highly supportive of lockdown measures.
On the other hand, there are enough lockdown sceptic MPs to force a leadership election, Such an election would be far from guaranteed to end in Johnson’s defeat, but it would damage his authority.
It is possible to overstate the risk to Johnson of losing the premiership before he can fight the next election,. Prime ministers always encounter challengers as they govern, and it would be remarkable if Johnson did not.
However, given Johnson’s shaky approval ratings, his mishandling of the pandemic, and the general voting intention as picked up by the polls, I feel happy to lower the chance of him fighting the next election by a few percentage points. In conclusion: I believe there is a 37% chance of Johnson being replaced as Tory leader before the next general election.
Image credit: Boris Johnson, October 2019 by DonkeyHotey