A Tory insider describes the tense scenes in Westminster as the party awaits a leadership challenger to emerge

A week down after recess, the Conservative mood in Parliament is now one of trepidation. The anger and frustration of local councillors and members has reached MPs. Challengers to Boris Johnson’s throne have been sounding out support.

Locally, in London, knocking on hundreds of doors, soft Conservative voters all complained about Johnson and the lockdown parties. The night of the count, it became clear early on that we were going to do badly. Labour was ahead two-to-one in what should have been our best polling district, even with a strong Green showing. Dejected party members left early. Of those who did stay through the wearing hours of the early morning, candidates would not even stand up and be counted for the declaration.

The result was pretty much exactly what we were told on the doorstep: people chose to punish us over Johnson.

In the other nations, things were just as bad. We lost our second place in Scotland, with 63 fewer seats. Leader Douglas Ross’s reverse ferret, condemning and then backing the Prime Minister over the parties, had cost him. A post-election briefing came through with our lines: “[Given] the anger at the Conservative Party UK-wide, at the unacceptable behaviour of the Prime Minister and his staff, it would be astonishing if Labour did not come second and make significant gains in this election.”

Members of Scottish Parliament who all followed Ross in calling for the Prime Minister’s resignation and were not best pleased when he changed tack, are now questioning his leadership.

In Wales, the test was whether we could hold the modest but historic gains from 2019. The results were not promising. The Welsh Conservative Leader, Andrew RT Davies, echoing the comments of many elected Welsh Conservatives, admitted the problems faced because of Number 10. Welsh Tory MPs are very nervous across the WhatsApp groups, the corridors and in the tearoom.

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Even in places where our performance was not disastrous, some MPs see this opportunity as voters giving us a chance to get rid of Johnson. Yet, even where Johnson loyalists did badly, having thrown in their lot with the Prime Minister, they fear they would not get far without him.

There is now however clearly an insidious split that will worsen in the next couple of years, as spooked Tories who have seats to lose, mostly the southern and Celtic Tories to whom low taxes and political integrity matter more, vie with the loyalists over the future of the Conservative Party.

Conservative leaders who lost councils across the country all very quickly turned to publicly blame Johnson. Privately, those local associations are pressing their MP to act. Letters are being considered, drafted and kept close at hand.

Last Week in Westminster

In Parliament last Monday, given that the Government has little to show for a full legislative year – and that there had been no noticeable advantage to our ‘Brexit freedoms’, only problems – the promise of great change in the Queen’s speech was realised.

Mid-morning, Number 10 invited MPs to a spring reception the next day. A few declined to go. Instead, of consternation and consultation, those who did fell upon a celebratory mood, the puckish charm of a midsummer’s night dream, laughter over drinks and canapés. There seemed to be no real sense that Johnson’s inner circle were taking the election results seriously.

The Government has not seriously been working to win or even retain seats in London, Scotland, Wales or the shires. The mood seems to be: we lose London; so what?

Overall, the view was that the results were poor but not disastrous. The gains in Thurrock and Nuneaton have been interpreted as the continued support of working-class Tory voters, the people we are looking to hold.

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Tuesday morning, following a Panorama investigation ahead of the Government’s expected flagship Levelling Up Bill, Michael Gove tempered expectations, saying that inflation will hamper the project. Despite 38 bills being presented in the Queen’s Speech, support flagged almost as soon as the sermon had been delivered.

A day later, and already another rebellion was mounting. Senior backbencher Simon Hoare and former Prime Minister Theresa May warned over the Government’s plans to revoke the Northern Ireland Protocol. They were joined by the usual suspects, the same who rebelled at foreign aid cuts.

By the end of the week, most MPs had taken stock of their colleagues, waiting for the right person to lead the charge to replace Johnson. Everyone expects a reshuffle before the next recess, some thinking June, giving new ministers a month to settle in. The threat of it helps to keep ministers in line and no Cabinet challenge has been made.

There had been reports from friends of Jeremy Hunt, the contender who had lost out to Johnson in 2019, that he would to challenge again and was already sounding out MPs. In a classic no-names back and forth, a minister mocked Hunt for making pre-election noises. The friends of Hunt hit back, claiming the briefing had not come from him but someone trying to discredit him.

On Thursday, Hunt gave an exclusive to The Times, warning that the Conservative Party’s majority is at risk, and not ruling out a future challenge.

There are two testing by-elections ahead, Tiverton (in the south west), and the Red Wall seat of Wakefield. For now, however, Johnson rolls on, as MPs wait and see.


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