Well, that didn’t take long. Just one week into the new parliamentary term and a case of civil war has broke out in the Conservative party over Boris Johnson. The former foreign secretary makes the front of most Sunday papers – with some running more than one P1 story about him. Following the news that Johnson is divorcing his wife Marina Wheeler, his ‘close friendship’ with a female former Tory aide makes three papers. The Sunday Times reports that a sleaze dossier – linked to No 10 – on weaponising Johnson’s private has been doing the rounds over the past week. However, the author of the document points out that they no longer work for Theresa May and says they drew this up after the EU referendum.
Next up, Johnson himself has added some fuel to the fire (or thrown a dead cat onto the table) with a Mail on Sunday article accusing Theresa May of wrapping a ‘suicide vest’ around Britain in the Brexit negotiations – and handing a detonator to Brussels. This comparison has led a number of Tory MPs to rush to social media to make their disgust be known. Alan Duncan – Johnson’s old colleague in the Foreign Office – has said this ‘marks one of the most disgusting moments in modern British politics’. If it’s not the ‘political end of Boris Johnson’, he says, ‘I will make sure it is later’. Tom Tugendhat – another old foe of Johnson – chips in:
A suicide bomber murdered many in the courtyard of my office in Helmand. The carnage was disgusting, limbs and flesh hanging from trees and bushes. Brave men who stopped him killing me and others died In horrific pain. Some need to grow up. Comparing the PM to that isn’t funny. https://t.co/IeRWhmhgS9
— Tom Tugendhat (@TomTugendhat) September 8, 2018
Meanwhile, Tom Watson – Labour’s deputy leader – has used his personal website to allege that Johnson will announce his leadership bid come Monday: ‘Johnson, enabled by Tory election mastermind and new sidekick Lynton Crosby, has mapped out a timeline to power which will torpedo the PM’s Chequers plan for Brexit’. Johnson’s allies are keen to downplay any imminent leadership bid. This week coming is supposed to be the week that the Brexiteers reveal their policy hand. The ERG are due to launch a rival Brexit manifesto to Theresa May’s Chequers deal. Given that this is something Boris is expected to get behind it could be read as a staging post in an eventual bid. However, there are apparently problems behind the scenes when it comes to this new Brexit manifesto. Not all the Brexiteers can agree on the policies and some mooted – like a ‘Star Wars’-style missile shield to protect Britain from nuclear attack and an ‘expeditionary force’ to defend the Falklands – have been dismissed as laughable.
To say the atmosphere is febrile would be an understatement. The problem Johnson faces is that were his side to mount a leadership challenge or the Brexiteers to trigger a ‘no confidence’ vote, they would need a large chunk of the Parliamentary party to side with them. It’s conceivable they could get the 48 letters to Graham Brady – the 1922 chair – to trigger a ‘no confidence’ vote. But it’s a push to say that they would currently have the votes required for Theresa May to lose that – unless other leadership hopefuls decided it was a good time to get rid of the Prime Minister and have a contest. The problem Johnson faces is what tends to increase his popularity with the grassroots makes him less popular with his colleagues – and it’s their support he must win if he wants to get to the membership in the final two of any leadership contest.