A secret rebellion by disgruntled government ministers could finish off Boris Johnson as Conservative leader, Tory MPs plotting his ejection believe.
The prime minister could face a no-confidence vote as early as this week, in which he would need the support of 180 Tory MPs – half of the current total of 359 – in order to hold on to his job.
Backers have suggested that he is all but certain to win any ballot, as the “payroll vote” of 173 ministers and parliamentary aides is almost enough to get him past the threshold.
But one backbencher, who has called for Mr Johnson’s resignation, told The Independent that the PM cannot take the votes of members of his own government for granted. Two parliamentary private secretaries (PPS) have already quit over Partygate, and rebels believe that other government figures are privately ready to join the drive to unseat him.
“It is a secret ballot, and in the privacy of the polling booth it is far from certain that all of his ministers will vote to keep him in office,” said the MP.
“Some of them have very small majorities and will be worried for their seats. Some of them may think they would prosper better under another leader. And some of them just do not like what he is doing to the party.
“It’s obvious that the majority of backbenchers will vote to remove him, but the secret to getting over the line will be how many ministers and PPSs – who of course have said nothing in public, because it would cost them their jobs – will join them . ”
Mr Johnson’s critics have been circulating a briefing paper among Tory MPs over the bank holiday weekend, warning that 160 or more of them could lose their seats in a “landslide” defeat if he leads them into the next election.
“The only way to end this misery, earn a hearing from the British public and restore Conservative fortunes to a point where we can win the next general election is to remove Boris Johnson as prime minister,” the note said.
One MP said the result of a confidence vote was likely to be “very close”, and predicted that even if Mr Johnson scrapes home by a narrow margin, he will be terminally wounded.
“At that point, I think it is ‘men in gray suits’ time, and members of the cabinet will be telling him it is time to go,” said the backbencher. “Any normal person would resign.”
Some Tory rebels believe that the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady, has already received the 54 letters required to trigger a no-confidence ballot, with one source suggesting the tally could be as high as 67.
Sir Graham always maintains a scrupulous silence over the true figure, and some in Westminster believe he may have been waiting for the end of the platinum jubilee weekend to tot up the total, after he said that counting letters was “not a regular pastime” for him.
If the threshold is passed on Monday, he will be expected to inform the prime minister before calling a vote as early as Tuesday or Wednesday.
If it is not, many MPs expect it to be passed after the by-elections in Wakefield and Tiverton & Honiton on 23 June, when polls suggest Conservatives will face a torrid night.
A survey by JL Partners for The Sunday Times gave Labor a 20-point lead over Tories in the West Yorkshire seat, one of the highly symbolic red wall constituencies that fell to Mr Johnson in the 2019 election.
James Johnson, co-founder of JL Partners, said the Tories could also face defeat in Devon, with focus groups suggesting that even Leave voters are now ready to help the Liberal Democrats overturn a 24,000 majority in a by-election triggered by MP Neil Parish’s resignation after he admitted watching pornography in the Commons.
“Partygate has changed everything, and that trust has now completely gone in Boris Johnson,” said Mr Johnson. “Also that feeling that he is strong and can get things done has gone. I think these by-elections, and the polls, and the local election results show that Boris Johnson is no longer the asset he once was. ”
With voters showing little enthusiasm for Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer, the Conservatives could recover their lead in the national polls “quite quickly” with a new face at the helm, said James Johnson.
One former major donor to the Conservatives predicted that the party was heading for “obliteration” in the general election and a decade in the wilderness unless Boris Johnson is ditched.
Financier Michael Tory, who has given more than £ 300,000 to the party since 2010, said: “I was a loyal and long-standing donor, but can only resume donating if there is an immediate change of leadership.
“And it has to be now, before it’s too late to avoid a richly deserved obliteration at the next election, followed probably by a decade in opposition.”
Meanwhile, there was anger from some backbenchers at what they regard as “macho” briefing from the prime minister’s supporters.
Loyalists are reported to have been characterizing the drive to remove the PM as a plot to reverse Brexit, after prominent Johnson critic Tobias Ellwood published an article calling for a return to the single market.
Other signatories of no-confidence letters have been branded “childish” and “turncoats” in anonymous briefings to Tory-backing newspapers.
“It’s madness,” said one MP. “Nasty stuff of this kind is the opposite of what they should be doing. They ought to be reaching out to people. ”
Transport secretary Grant Shapps said he did not expect a vote to take place in the coming week, and that he believed Mr Johnson would survive if it came.
Mr Shapps played down the significance of the booing directed at the prime minister by crowds at the platinum jubilee thanksgiving service on Friday.
Recalling the jeers faced by George Osborne at the Paralympics in 2012, he told BBC1’s Sunday Morning: “I remember booing going on at the Olympic Games in 2012, and it did not mean that the election was not won in 2015.”
Mr Shapps added: “Politicians by their very nature … will of course divide opinion. That’s what politicians do. That’s because we argue about different sides of issues.
“You will always get people who approve, and people who disapprove. That’s the point of a free and democratic society. It’s also the point of having a monarchy, where everyone can join together and support the Queen regardless of their politics. Frankly, I think that demonstrates one of the beauties of our system. ”
Elections guru Professor Sir John Curtice, of Strathclyde University, said there was no sign of public anger abating over the lockdown-breaching parties at 10 Downing Street.
Recent polls showed that around three quarters of voters – including half of those who voted Conservative in 2019 – believe Mr Johnson lied about Partygate, said Prof Curtice. The same polling found that a quarter or more of Tory supporters want the PM to quit.
“It is now very, very unlikely that the public are ever going to come to the conclusion that what the prime minister did during lockdown with the various gatherings was reasonable, let alone within the law,” he told Times Radio.
“If you lose a quarter of the people who voted for you last time, then you’re in trouble.”