Boris Johnson has plunged the Conservative Party into an acute identity crisis as a result of Partygate and U-turns in fiscal policy, senior Conservatives warned last night, as more MPs called for his resignation as Prime Minister.
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan-Smith told the Observer his party had been left with a “massive identity problem” because it had raised rather than cut taxes under Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak, undermining a core Conservative message that had helped it win successive general elections.
Doubts about Johnson’s ability to survive as prime minister and fears that the Conservatives are now in terminal electoral decline were raised when party leader Sir Bob Neill said the combination of a collapse in confidence in the prime minister , coupled with a lack of clarity about what the Conservatives stood for, had created a “toxic mix” in the minds of voters. Neill called on Friday for Johnson to leave.
Yesterday two more MPs, former health minister Steve Brine and Anne Marie Morris, said they had also lost confidence in Johnson, bringing the total that has been made public to 24.
Several others are understood to have written letters of no confidence to 1922 President Sir Graham Brady without going public, and more have indicated privately that they will. If 54 or more deputies send letters to Brady, a leadership contest will be triggered.
“I think we are in our 40s,” said a rebel MP. Another added: “We are only a few.”
There was a mood of relief bordering on jubilation in Downing Street on Thursday and Friday, as Johnson and his team believed they had survived the release of a damning report on Partygate by civil servant Sue Gray, then shifted focus. to measures to address the cost of living crisis on Thursday.
While a £15bn package of measures announced by Sunak was widely welcomed, many Tories were unhappy that the government financed part of it by making a massive U-turn that saw it adopt Labour’s plan for an extraordinary tax. on the profits of oil and gas companies. .
Duncan Smith said that instead of imposing a tax increase on businesses, Sunak should have cut taxes for low- and middle-income people, and restored Tory’s reputation as a low-tax party.
“He had the wiggle room to not tax windfall profits. Kickstarting growth is the priority. We have to avoid recession and to do that we have to lower taxes and get people to spend.
“Conservatives believe in lower taxes, leaving people with more of their own money because they make the best decisions. Unless we get back to this approach and cut taxes in the fall budget, we’re going to be in real trouble.”
The Conservatives, he said, now risk gaining a reputation as a big state party with high taxes, and have also raised national insurance in breach of a manifest commitment. “I don’t think we just have a little identity problem, we have a big identity problem,” she said.
Gavin Barwell, the former Conservative MP who served as Theresa May’s chief of staff at No. 10, said the party’s electoral prospects under Johnson were bleak: “By failing to take action against a prime minister, roughly 60% of the public thinks he should resign, the Conservatives MPs are sleepwalking to defeat him in the next election”.
Opinium’s latest survey for the Observer finds that 56% of all voters, including 32% of 2019 conservative voters, believe Johnson should resign. The survey was conducted after the publication of the Gray report.
Oliver Heald, the Conservative MP for North East Hertfordshire, told constituents he was talking to other MPs about “what happens next”. He added: “I think it will take two to three weeks to know the answer.” Key by-elections in Wakefield and in Tiverton and Honiton are due in three weeks. Former cabinet minister Robert Buckland said Saturday that “changes will have to be made” if the party suffers heavy defeats.
Liberal Democrats say many of those calling for Johnson’s resignation are in the conservative seats they are targeting. “Conservative MPs who spent months defending Boris Johnson on Partygate are now finally acting because they are worried about losing their seats,” said Vice President Daisy Cooper.
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Johnson caused more astonishment on Friday, just two days after declaring himself “humiliated” by the Gray report, when it was announced that he had rewritten parts of the ministerial code so that ministers no longer have to resign for minor breaches. He also removed a section of the code that referred to ethics. Labor announced on Saturday that it would hold an opposition day debate in which the party would commit to strengthening the code.
In another potential blow to Sunak, questions are being raised this weekend over whether windfall profits tax will rise to anywhere near the £5bn the chancellor said it would raise on Thursday.
Center-left think tank Common Wealth said it can only raise a fraction of that sum due to complex rules that allow investments to be offset against earnings.
The warning comes after Liberal Democrats said delays in introducing the tax meant it had lost £3bn of reported “windfall profits” by oil and gas companies in 2021 and a further £8bn sterling so far this year.