After this month’s botched attempt to remove Boris Johnson in a confidence vote Conservative rebels will hold their fire until his position is “irrecoverable”, a former minister has said.
The senior backbencher told The Independent that MPs will act “lightning fast” to oust the prime minister when a powerful Commons committee publishes its findings on whether he lied to parliament over Partygate.
The prediction came as Mr Johnson insisted he will not give up the “privilege” of being PM – and claimed that the ballot in which 40 per cent of his MPs voted to remove him amounted to a “new mandate” to lead.
But despite Mr Johnson’s bullishness, the ex-minister said he did not believe fellow-MPs would allow the PM to lead them into the next election – no matter how determined he is to carry on.
“How deep in the gutter are we willing to dive?” he asked. “How degraded are we willing to allow the Conservative Party to become?
“It’s a pretty poor state of affairs, after two elections where half of the main opposition’s candidates didn’t want their leader on their leaflets, if we go into the next election not wanting our leader’s face on ours.”
Last week’s by-election defeats in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton have sparked demands for a second vote on Mr Johnson’s leadership, with some Tory MPs understood to have resubmitted letters of no confidence to Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee.
Rebels are pushing for change to the committee’s rules to allow an early re-run by slashing the 12-month grace period granted to Mr Johnson after he secured his position by a vote of 211-148 on 6 June.
But the former minister said that it would be better to finish Mr Johnson off cleanly than risk another ballot that he could once again survive.
With only backbenchers allowed to vote in next month’s election to the executive of the ’22, there was no doubt that the body will soon have a majority of members keen to dispatch the PM, he said.
But he cautioned: “If we did it now, who’s to say we’d even win?
“When it happens, it has to be lightning-fast and it has to be at a moment when his position is irrecoverable.”
He said that the moment was likely to come with the publication, expected in early autumn, of the report from the privileges committee, chaired by veteran Labour MP Harriet Harman.
Despite intense pressure on the committee’s majority of Conservative MPs to clear the PM, it was difficult to see how their findings could do anything other than confirm that Mr Johnson misled parliament when he said all social distancing rules were observed at No 10, said the backbencher.
If the PM tried to cling on, in defiance of convention that would suggest automatic resignation, “that is when the ‘22 will act, that’s when the rules will be changed and he will be out”.
The comments came as cabinet ministers faced growing calls to follow Oliver Dowden, who quit his government post and the chairmanship of the Tory Party after the devastating byelection defeats.
Senior Tory MP William Wragg, a leading critic of Mr Johnson, called on ministers to “show a bit of backbone” and take action against the PM.
There was a “palpable” sense of disappointment on the backbenches at ministers’ silence, said Mr Wragg, who suggested that inaction now might damage their chances in an eventual battle for the succession.
“Any of them with leadership aspirations might wish to consider this and do something about it,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour.
Fellow backbench critic Damian Green said it was “no secret that many of the people in the cabinet are setting up potential leadership campaigns”.
The former Tory minister told Channel 4: “If this long agony … is to be brought to a head … then maybe somebody in the cabinet might wish to take some action.”
The prime minister insisted questions over his leadership had been “settled” by this month’s confidence vote.
Asked at the G7 summit in Germany if he had considered walking away from No 10, Mr Johnson told the BBC: “I’m focused on what I’m doing as a leader of the country.
“That is a huge, huge privilege to do, nobody abandons a privilege like that.”
Challenged over whether he still had the authority to lead, an irritated Mr Johnson – who angered critics at the weekend by suggesting he would remain into the 2030s – replied: “I not only have the authority, I’ve got a new mandate from my party which I’m absolutely delighted about.”
Environment secretary George Eustice insisted the rest of the cabinet continued to back their leader.
“We have the support of the prime minister, the prime minister has our support, we work together and we stick together through difficult times,” he told Sky News.