More letters demanding a Tory leadership election are landing on the desk of Graham Brady, chairman of the backbench 1922 committee. The word is that there may soon be enough letters to trigger a vote of confidence, or no confidence, in the party’s leader. The widespread view that Boris had got away with it when the Sue Gray report was published looks to have been premature.
The atmosphere is febrile. Tory rebels have been taking soundings from activists over the weekend. They are worried about the threat to seats from the Lib Dems.
While the Tory parliamentary party is perfectly capable of coming up with, from its perspective, the worst possible outcome, that is holding a vote of confidence and then backing Boris by just about enough so he limps on like a wounded big dog, it is possible MPs are concerned enough to do him in. A vote among Tory MPs if it comes will be a secret ballot.
It is in this context that a strange story, or stranger than usual story, appeared in the pages of the Mail on Sunday at the weekend. The paper, well plugged into the Tory leadership and the Conservative parliamentary party, was briefed that Chairman Oliver Dowden will be made to carry the can for looming by-election defeats. He’s had it, it’s his fault, was the general tenor of the report. Someone in Number 10, someone close to the PM is out to get Dowden. It looks like someone wants him out of CCHQ to get more direct control.
This is a “brave” move. Dowden is a trainee Tory grandee, someone generally well-liked with deep connections across the party.
He was also one of several new generation Tories who made a difference when they backed Boris. In happier times, for Boris, Dowden, Rishi Sunak and Robert Generic, sorry Jenrick, penned a piece in The Times in June 2019 headlined: “The Tories are in deep peril, only Boris Johnson can save us.”
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Following an unfortunate row involving planning and Richard Desmond, Jenrick was later fired from the cabinet by Boris. Sunak now has a difficult relationship with the Prime Minister, and supporters of Boris in the bunker would like him fired.
But when it comes to the intricacies of a leadership contest, whacking a party chairman is of a different order. Blaming him for the electoral mess that flows from Partygate and the collapse of the PM’s ratings would be very high risk. If Dowden refused a demotion, what then? Dowden could simply refuse to move. Is Boris Johnson in a strong enough position to dismiss him?
Now the Tory chairman knows friends of Boris are trying to persuade him to get rid of Dowden and briefing the papers he’ll get the blame for the mess Boris made. Conservative leaders facing dangerous leadership contests usually try to keep the party chairman on side, if they’re sensible.