Boris Johnson’s lurch to the right after Partygate is fuelling even more anger among rebel Tory MPs, with momentum now building for a leadership challenge next week.
Conservative whips spent the first day of recess anxiously phoning round the parliamentary party to shore up support for the prime minister, as four more MPs called on him to resign, including Jeremy Wright, the former attorney general.
Several Tory MPs told the Guardian they believed the threshold of 54 letters withdrawing support for Johnson was close to being crossed – or may have been already. This would trigger a secret ballot on whether they still have confidence in the prime minister.
It is understood that Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee, will have to use his own judgment about whether to announce the milestone being passed straight away if it occurs while parliament is off this week, or wait until Monday, when the House of Commons returns after the Queen’s jubilee celebrations.
One backbench critic of the PM said MPs from the 2019 intake were “gathering their courage” to put in letters before next Monday, but were worrying about repercussions if No 10 were to identify them after an unsuccessful coup. They said the opposition to Johnson was increasingly coordinated and determined to trigger a vote, with almost 30 MPs having publicly declared their opposition so far.
In his statement withdrawing support for the prime minister, Wright said Johnson had done “real and lasting damage” to the institution of government, and while he could not be sure that the prime minister had misled parliament, Johnson had been at best “negligent” in how he had approached the issue.
Elliot Colburn, a Tory MP with a small majority against the Lib Dems, said he had put in a letter “some time ago”, while Nickie Aiken, the Cities of London and Westminster MP whose council turned Labour this month, called on Johnson to bring an end to the situation by submitting a no-confidence letter in himself. Tory MP Andrew Bridgen also told constituents he had resubmitted his letter.
The dismay over Johnson’s premiership is worsening among Tories in so-called “Blue Wall” seats at risk of losing them to the Lib Dems, and “Red Wall” marginals where they have narrow majorities over Labour.
With Johnson’s future in the balance, No 10 has begun launching a number of rightwing, nationalistic policies in recent weeks. These include the return of imperial measures, plans to override the Northern Ireland protocol, a hint about expanding grammar schools, a review of fracking, and repeated promises to tear up more EU regulation.
A cabinet minister told the Guardian that Johnson appeared to be trying to stop the right of the party turning against him in the event of a leadership challenge, citing policies such as the review of fracking – which is electorally unpopular but appeals to a minority in parliament.
But Tory pollsters and some centrist MPs warned that this “core vote” direction was the wrong route to go down with public trust in Johnson so low among swing voters. Tobias Ellwood, a Tory former minister and chair of the defence committee, Johnson’s lurch to the right adds to momentum for leadership vote | Boris