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A senior Conservative backbencher has suggested Boris Johnson is not safe from another attempt to unseat him as leader if the party loses two crucial by-elections this week.
On Thursday voters go to the polls for by-elections in Wakefield in West Yorkshire and Tiverton and Honiton in Devon after both constituencies saw their Tory MPs forced to resign their seats.
Labour is expected to take back Wakefield, which the party had held for decades before the last election in 2019, while the Liberal Democrats are believed to be in with a strong chance of overhauling a huge majority of more than 24,000 in Tiverton following recent local election victories in the region.
Appearing on this week’s episode of the PoliticsHome podcast The Rundown, Huw Merriman, the MP for Bexhill and Battle, indicated that the by-elections will be a key test for the beleaguered Prime Minister.
Asked about how Tories might respond to a defeat in both seats, Merriman told PoliticsHome that while the vote of confidence in the Prime Minister earlier this month “was like a tornado that blew in, then blew out again, it’s possible that the tornado blows in again when you don’t expect it”.
According to current rules of the 1922 Committee, which oversees Conservative leadership challenges, a confidence vote in the party leader can’t be held for another twelve months, and the view in Westminster has generally been that even a double defeat in this week’s by-elections, would not immediately precipitate further moves to replace him.
But today Merriman believed that might not be the case. He felt that the timing of the confidence vote earlier this month took many MPs by surprise, meaning those who were uncertain about their support for Johnson didn’t have much time to decide which way to vote.
“There wasn’t enough time really to consider and analyse it, in terms of what to do. It’s that classic sort of chaotic way that our politics works,” Merriman, who also chairs the Commons transport select committee, said.
“By that it’s possible that the tornado blows in again when you don’t expect it either. These things are all subject to change.”
Merriman pointed to what happened after Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May won her own confidence vote in December 2018, only to be forced to resign six months later, as evidence the PM could still be prised out.
“My understanding of what occurred last time is that they confronted Theresa May with ‘the rules may change’, and shortly after that we found that she’d set her own date,” he explained. “So it’s always possible.”
But he expressed frustration that the Tory internal party rulebook was not publicly available, and that details of the method for trying to oust a leader were still opaque.
Chair of the 1922 Sir Graham Brady is the only person who knows what the rules are, and how many letters have been sent at any point.
“The frustrating thing about the ’22 was that no one ever sees these letters,” Merriman said.
“Normally something gets audited where you can actually do something like changing the Prime Minister. Yet no one apart from one person actually knows whether those letters actually exist.”
Merriman said when he was a ministerial aide to the then-Chancellor Philip Hammond he attempted to find a copy of the party’s rules ahead of the leadership challenge against May.
“I tried everything. I kept getting stalled. And actually, I don’t believe there are any written down,” he said.
“It’s bizarre. As a sort of shareholder in this because I’m a backbench Conservative MP, I find it bizarre that we don’t have some way of auditing this.
“Graham is a great guy, don’t get me wrong, but how you can actually change the Prime Minister with a set of rules that don’t seem to exist, and certainly not given to the members, and also that you don’t have anyone independently verifying? And yet here we are.”
- Subscribe to The Rundownout Thursday, to hear the full discussion.
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