PLMR Insights: Can Johnson survive the exodus at No 10?

With today’s headlines dominated by “Meltdown in No10” stories, the shockwave of the past 24 hours with the loss of five senior advisers has led to even some of the more loyal members of the Cabinet stating that the Prime Minister only has a 50/50 chance of surviving, with a vote of no confidence being a question of when, not if.

Dan Rosenfield, No10 chief of staff, and Martin Reynolds, the Prime Minister’s principal private secretary, are leaving by “mutual consent” and will stay on until replacements are found. Jack Doyle, Johnson’s director of communications, has also resigned. All three have been implicated in some way by “Partygate” and its handling. These departures have allowed allies of the Prime Minister to try and push the change narrative, presenting this situation as Johnson taking control, resetting his No10 operation, and “fixing the problem” as he put it on Monday.

The biggest loss for the Prime Minister however was Munira Mirza, who attacked him for “letting himself down” by making “scurrilous” accusations against the Labour Leader, Sir Keir Starmer. Mirza had been at Johnson’s side for 14 years since he was Mayor of London; he once described her as one of the most influential women in his life. This departure was not planned, and has sent shockwaves through the Conservative Party given her loyalty to the Prime Minister, and because she was seen as central to driving forward a post-Covid policy agenda. It shows how badly the Prime Minister’s comments about Sir Keir Starmer have gone down even within his own inner circle. It also taps into the concerns of some backbench MPs that there is too much looking back at Brexit, and not enough focus on the Government’s policy agenda going forward, particularly around the Levelling Up White Paper and whether it can be delivered meaningfully. Munira’s husband, Dougie Smith, another senior No 10 adviser (seen as Johnson’s “fixer”) and a number of other staff, are also said to be “considering their positions”.

Allies of the Prime Minister point to her replacement, Andrew Griffith MP, as a sign that there isn’t a vacuum, but a proactive attempt to bring the No10 operation closer to the parliamentary party. Griffith is a close ally of the Prime Minister — lending his house to his leadership campaign, serving as his business adviser, and recently as the Prime Minister’s PPS and “net zero champion”

This No10 reset has however come unstuck with a number of senior civil servants turning down the offer of becoming new head of “The Office of The Prime Minister”. The Prime Minister has also been unable to convince election guru and MP-unifier Lynton Crosby to take a formal role as an adviser although he will still consult behind the scenes.

Some Westminster watchers are now saying that the Prime Minister would be well-advised to have his leadership voted on before the publication of Sue Gray’s findings, or before the Metropolitan Police have concluded their investigation. This would force MPs to oust Johnson before seeing the full suite of evidence against him, something they may find difficult, and could ultimately benefit the Prime Minister. He would then have 12-months before a second ballot on his leadership could take place.

Unlike previous scandals involving the Prime Minister, there’s no doubt that on this occasion, ‘partygate’ has resonated with the electorate. Recent polling puts Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party at least 10 points ahead of the Conservatives. Critically, the Prime Minister’s favourability is now lower than his party’s, something the Conservative 1922 backbench Committee are unlikely to tolerate in the long-term. Some MPs are looking ahead to the May local elections with a belief that the Prime Minister’s shine is finally wearing off, and this will render him an electoral liability.

Leadership rivals are certainly on manoeuvres and sending out small signals that suggest they are preparing, Tom Tugendhat made clear his opposition to the NI rise, whereas Rishi Sunak rebuffed the PM’s statement on Starmer in his press conference last night. The steady trickle of letters going into the 1922 Committee is also a huge problem, just this week we have seen Andrew Mitchell, Peter Aldous, Tobias Ellwood and Anthony Mangnall call for him to go, all of whom are in safe seats, begging the question of how long the PM can hold the Conservative coalition together.

In terms of his long-term survival prospects, the Prime Minister does have two advantages. The first is that whilst frustration at his premiership is broad, it lacks depth, and there isn’t one large faction that’s organising against him on the basis of a policy disagreement. The second is the lack of unity amongst the Conservative Party on who should come next. And related to this, no-one is currently rushing for the top job which is accompanied by an in-tray of hikes in energy bills, tackling the cost-of-living crisis, and facing a challenging set of local elections in May.

As throughout the last three months, politics is moving quickly, as shown by Gary Sambrook MP withdrawing his letter of no confidence last week, and whilst we can expect more twists and turns, there is no doubt that brand Boris has suffered a huge amount of long-term damage. Only 54 MPs are needed to trigger a confidence motion, which might be achieved due to a steady trickle rather than a wave. But it will take 183 MPs to defeat him, which in a secret ballot, means there is still all to play for.

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