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Tory MPs may force no-confidence vote in Boris Johnson within a week, as his grip on Number 10 wavers

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Leon Neal/Getty Images

  • A wave of resignations in Downing Street has renewed the unease among Tory MPs.
  • Conservative backbenchers told Insider they doubt he can rebuild after 5 senior aides left.
  • If 54 submit letters of no confidence, Johnson will face a leadership challenge.

Conservative MPs could force a confidence vote in Boris Johnson as early as next week, after the prime minister suffered the loss of a key ally. 

Johnson, who has spent the week trying to placate Conservative backbenchers over the series of illegal parties around Downing Street, was on Thursday hit by the shock resignation of Munira Mirza. 

A further three senior aides — Jack Doyle, Martin Reynolds and Dan Rosenfield — resigned the same night, a move agreed with Downing Street. A fifth aide, Elena Narozanski, quit Friday morning. 

Ever one to put a positive spin on things, Johnson quoted “The Lion King” as he told Number 10 staff that “change is good”. 

But that’s not how it has gone down among Conservative MPs, who requested anonymity to speak frankly to Insider about their leader. 

One MP was scathing towards the suggestion, circulated by Johnson allies, that the resignations were planned, saying with sarcasm: “You always sack your main team without having replacements ready!”

The chaos in Number 10 gave new life to speculation that more MPs will submit letters of no confidence, and that the threshold of 54 to trigger a vote could be reached imminently. 

Aaron Bell, one MP swept to victory in a Brexit-backing constituency at the 2019 election, went public with his on Friday afternoon. 

—Aaron Bell MP (@AaronBell4NUL) February 4, 2022

One former minister told Insider that “more are expected.”

Tory MPs are increasingly sceptical that the gaffe-prone prime minister has what it takes to turn things around.

His use of a far-right conspiracy theory against Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer is further proof to those doubters of his failure to grasp the mood outside his inner circle. 

“He is surrounded by yes-men, he’s got no idea how bad things are,” said another former minister. 

On Monday night Johnson promised MPs that Lynton Crosby, the Australian political operative once dubbed the Wizard of Oz for his strategic nous, would return to his team. 

This received “one of the biggest cheers of the night”, said one of those who attended the meeting. 

However it quickly transpired not to be true, leaving MPs more disillusioned than before.

Crosby, who is in Australia and plans to remain there for weeks still, is “not going into No 10 or working in that way,” according to the journalist Peter Oborne.

One MP told Insider it was “another Boris balls-up.” Another said there was a “definite credibility issue.”

This was reinforced by Mirza’s departure. A loyal adviser who has worked with Johnson for 14 years, she was instrumental in several key policies and seen as chief architect of a “war on woke,” in which the government would take on institutions seen as excessively political progressive, most notably the BBC.

She also the latest in a series of women to leave senior roles in Downing Street, something critics attribute to repeated internal clashes with Johnson’s wife Carrie. 

Mirza was “struggling with Mrs J”, said one Conservative source.  An MP added: “Carrie is very much running the show and is telling the PM what to do, and the senior lot have had enough.”

Mirza was replaced quickly – with unseemly haste, some said – by Andrew Griffith MP. He is one of Johnson’s closest allies and a member of the shadow whipping operation set up to dampen the rebellion within Tory ranks. 

However, many MPs are sceptical that whether Johnson will be able to rebuild his team.  

“Any seasoned watcher will know that the civil service moves were the panic reaction to the Mirza resignation,” said one senior backbencher. “Until he can get some stability into the operation at [Number] 10 people are going to be reluctant to help/join.”

All this means Westminster has returned to the heightened tensions seen early in January, when a decisive action against Johnson seemed imminent but failed to materialize.

Several MPs told Insider they expected more letters of no confidence to arrive in the coming days, with ministerial resignations becoming an increasing possibility. 

MPs are increasingly reluctant to defend Johnson in public, a job falling to a small band of loyalists making repeated appearances.

Insider is aware of at least one member of the government who plans to quit, but is waiting to finish consulting with party members in their constituency.

One of the former ministers reacting to the aides’ departures called it “real end-of-days stuff.” 

Another MP, from a Leave-backing constituency, said his voters had a “general distrust of Government”, which has been exacerbated by the handling of the UK’s spiraling cost of living. 

“The PM is in major trouble now,” he said. “Councillors up for election in what would have been safe wards a few months, or even weeks, ago are getting jittery.”

Some speculated that Mirza’s resignation may pre-empt a more serious attempt to unseat Johnson, given her closeness with Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor.

Sunak on Thursday distanced himself from Johnson’s remark that sparked Mirza’s departure, telling journalists he “wouldn’t have said that”.

Mirza’s husband, Dougie Smith, is another Number 10 adviser with close ties to Sunak, and to Johnson’s longtime frenemy Michael Gove. 

Gove, one of the most senior ministers in Government, campaigned alongside Johnson for Brexit before launching a rival leadership bid in 2016 that destroyed both of their chances, paving the way for Theresa May take power.

Gove and Johnson have had an uneasy relationship since then, with sources telling Insider that trust has never fully been rebuilt. Smith could remain at Number 10 if “Michael G’s camp want to keep their eyes and ears”, said one. 

The prime minister was due to retreat to Chequers, the prime ministerial country residence, to regroup over the weekend.

He is then due to return to Westminster for the last week before a parliamentary recess that he hopes will scatter would-be plotters back to their constituencies. He may not even make it that long.

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