If Boris Johnson is no longer an electoral asset, what is the point of him? Quite simply: there is no alternative

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Boris Johnson had already said he would not quit even if the results were bad - DAN KITWOOD/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Boris Johnson had already said he would not quit even if the results were bad - DAN KITWOOD/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Ask any die-hard Johnsonite why the Conservative Party should stick with him, and you will invariably get the same answer: “Because he’s a winner.”

On a morning of record-breaking defeat, it appears that even the Prime Minister himself no longer believes that, having stayed away from the field of battle in order to minimise the losses.

Oliver Dowden seems to have come to the same conclusion, handing in his resignation as party chairman this morning after deciding that: “We cannot carry on with business as usual.”

He told Boris Johnson that “somebody must take responsibility”, and while the former culture secretary said he had decided he should take the fall, there are plenty of Tory MPs who believe that “somebody” should be Mr Johnson himself.

Mr Johnson’s opponents - of whom there are at least 148 in the parliamentary party, as this month’s confidence vote showed - will understandably point to the fact that Mr Johnson did not visit Wakefield at all during the by-election campaign and made only a cursory visit to Tiverton and Honiton, choosing not to meet any voters.

Tory election leaflets refused to acknowledge his existence, and despite brave attempts by loyalists like Andrea Jenkyns to claim there was still “great love” for Mr Johnson in working-class areas, there are far more reports from the doorsteps that voters will shun the Tories for as long as Mr Johnson stays at the helm.

If Mr Johnson is no longer an electoral asset, his detractors say, what is the point of him?

The worry now facing the Prime Minister, monitoring events from the Commonwealth summit in Rwanda, is the possibility of other Cabinet ministers following Mr Dowden over the top.

Mr Dowden, or “Olive”, as he is nicknamed, looks more like a children’s entertainer than an assassin, but the question occupying all Tory MPs this morning is whether his letter (below) to Boris Johnson, dipped in poisonous rhetoric, could prove to be a fatal blow.

Oliver Dowden's resignation letter
Oliver Dowden's resignation letter

Mr Johnson had made it clear that he would not resign over the by-election results, no matter how bad, but no prime minister can survive a loss of support from their own Cabinet.

With a reshuffle now needed to replace Mr Dowden, ministers will be weighing up whether now is the time to make their move. If they were already fearing a demotion, might they use the opportunity to go out in a blaze of glory?

While the staggeringly comprehensive defeat to the Liberal Democrats in Tiverton and Honiton was the most striking result of the night, turning a 24,239 Tory majority into a 6,144 Lib-Dem one with a 29.9 per cent swing, it is the result in Wakefield that is more troubling for many Tory MPs.

Those with long memories point out that in the years leading up to the 1992 election the Lib-Dems also made impressive by-election gains in the South, but failed to hold on to any of them when the general election came around. In that sense, Tiverton and Honiton can be written off, rightly or wrongly, as a protest vote, delivered with remarkable levels of tactical voting that saw Labour lose their deposit.

But Mr Johnson’s 80-seat majority at the 2019 election was delivered thanks to the demolition of the “red wall” of Labour strongholds including Wakefield, and its loss this morning is seen by many Tory MPs as a turning point from which there might be no return.

One said: “It marks the end of Boris’s ascendancy in the North. This is the first time Labour have taken back one of those red wall seats in a by-election. This time last year we were making gains from Labour by taking Hartlepool from them in a by-election, and that looks as though it was the high water mark.”

At that point, 48 per cent of the public thought the PM was doing a good job, marginally more than the number who thought he was doing badly, according to YouGov - the last time his personal ratings were in positive territory. Earlier this month his rating had plunged to minus 45, with 69 per cent saying “bad job” against just 24 per cent saying “good job”.

Labour won Wakefield with a swing of 12.69 per cent, turning a 3,358 Tory majority into a 4,925 Labour majority. The fact that the previous Tory MP, Imran Ahmad Khan, had quit after being found guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy was an aggravating factor, but few Tories are using that as an excuse.

If Labour’s victory were to be repeated in the 44 other “red wall” seats won by the Tories last time out it would be enough to wipe out Mr Johnson’s majority.

The stuff of nightmares

For any Tories of a nervous disposition, extrapolating the result in Tiverton and Honiton makes for the stuff of nightmares.

There are only 40 constituencies in the entire country where the Conservatives have a bigger majority than the one they had in the Devon seat, and there are 248 Tory MPs sitting on smaller leads over the Lib Dems.

Little wonder that the Tory candidate Helen Hurford shut herself away from the media in a room for 25 minutes before the result - the worst ever Tory reversal at a by-election - was announced, and did not make a speech after the results were declared.

If a Cabinet coup fails to materialise, the next moment of danger for the Prime Minister will be the parliamentary standards committee’s investigation into whether he misled the House of Commons over partygate, an inquiry that is expected to take place in the autumn.

Once again, the Conservative Party finds itself facing a familiar question. Can its leader deliver victory in the next election? And if not, then who can?

“The biggest thing Boris has got going for him at the moment is the lack of a credible alternative,” said one moderate Tory MP. “There is still a lot of plotting going on but there has been no genuine suggestion that the 1922 Committee is going to change its rules to have another confidence vote sooner than the current 12-month grace period.

“Rishi has blown it, and he was the only one who anyone thought stood a chance of doing better. If the party wants to replace Boris, it will have to hope someone emerges from the pack.”

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