Rebel Conservative MPs fear Boris Johnson could gamble on a general election within months in a make-or-break bid to save his premiership – but the party chairman, Oliver Dowden, has privately dismissed the idea as electorally disastrous.
One MP hoping to oust Johnson said they are “deadly serious” in their belief that the prime minister could seek to win himself another term by calling a vote this autumn, especially if he manages to buy time in No 10 by winning a confidence vote before the summer.
Some of his critics are convinced that the threshold of 54 Tory MPs required to trigger a confidence vote could be crossed shortly after further expected fines over the Partygate scandal, a bad result in next week’s local elections or the probable loss of the marginal Wakefield seat in its upcoming byelection.
However, they think Johnson stands a good chance of winning a vote requiring the support of more than 50% of his MPs – giving him a year’s reprieve before he can face another.
One Conservative MP said Dowden had been dampening down speculation of an early general election by privately reassuring colleagues there is “no way” they would go to the polls when Johnson’s ratings are so poor and Labor are several points ahead.
But the MP also argued that if Johnson faces a serious choice between being ousted by his own party and putting himself to a vote of the general public, many believe he would choose the latter.
“He could try to run another anti-establishment campaign pitching himself against MPs in parliament, that’s what we most fear,” they said.
Another Tory MP, who wants Johnson to go, said there was nervousness on the backbenches, particularly among so-called red wall MPs, that Johnson’s “self-interest” and reputation as a risk-taker could lead him to bet on an election.
One senior party source insisted an autumn election was “not the working assumption” and highlighted forthcoming boundary changes, which are expected to benefit the Tories and would not come into force until 2023. But they added: “One thing that is always a good idea is to try and maintain a wide range of options.”
More than 6,800 seats in 200 councils across Britain are up for grabs in next week’s local elections, including every seat in London, Scotland and Wales.
Both main parties are playing down their prospects, with Labor pointing to their strong showing the last time these seats were contested in 2018, and the Conservatives highlighting the fact they are trailing in national polls.
Tory strategists claim they are in serious trouble in the flagship London councils of Wandsworth and Westminster. Labor insisted these remain unlikely targets, but have hopes of taking Barnet, in north London, which has been mainly Tory-controlled since it was formed in 1964 (with a Labor-Liberal Democrat coalition ruling between 1994 and 2002).
Outside the capital, the Tories hope to make gains in such Sandwell in the West Midlands, where they took parliamentary seats at the 2019 general election but are well behind Labor at council level.
Conservative MPs will be watching developments in their constituencies closely, with advances for the opposition parties pointing to potential trouble at a future general election.
A senior Tory party source played down the risk that this could translate into fresh trouble for Johnson, however, saying: “It’s well known local elections can be used as a protest vote.”
The Liberal Democrats had made modest gains in disgraced former MP Owen Paterson’s North Shropshire seat at recent local elections, before overturning a near-23,000 majority to oust the Conservatives last year.
Labor sources say their number-crunchers will be monitoring the council results particularly closely in 50 key parliamentary seats the party believes it needs to gain in order to win the next election – including Stevenage, Bury North and South, and Glasgow.
“If we have a night where we’re showing the right kind of progress in the sort of places where we need to win at the next election, that’s good for us,” they said, adding that Labor will also be happy if Tory MPs continue to procrastinate about Johnson’s future, given his poor personal ratings.
Dowden told Conservative at his party’s spring conference in Blackpool that Johnson saw these local elections as the start of a two-year building up to the next general campaign, election.
The prime minister told reporters en route to India on his recent trip that he fully intends to fight the next general election, and could not imagine resigning over the Downing Street parties scandal.
But some backbenchers are concerned the government appears to be running out of ideas. A cabinet brainstorming session about the cost of living earlier this week resulting in few concrete ideas aside from making MOTs two-yearly – a plan swiftly rejected by motorists’ group the AA.
Meanwhile the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, appeared to be flirting with the labor policy of a windfall tax on energy companies this week, after repeatedly rejecting it.
This article was amended on 30 April 2022 to remove a reference to the Conservatives hoping to make gains in Stoke-on-Trent, as local elections are not taking place there.