Boris Johnson has thrown the Tory into an acute identity crisis following Partygate and U-turns on tax policy, senior Tories warned last night, as more and more MPs called on him to quit of his post as Prime Minister.
Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan-Smith told the Observer his party had been left with a ‘huge identity problem’ because it had raised taxes instead of cutting them under Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak, undermining a core Tory message that had helped him win successive general elections.
Doubts over Johnson’s ability to survive as prime minister and fears the Tories are now on a terminal electoral slide grew as party great Sir Bob Neill said the combination of the collapse of confidence in the prime minister, coupled with a lack of clarity about what the Tories stood for, had created a “toxic mix” in the minds of voters. Neill called Johnson on Friday to leave.
Yesterday two other MPs – former health minister Steve Brine and Anne Marie Morris – said they had also lost faith in Johnson, taking the total number of people made public to 24.
Several others reportedly wrote letters of censure to 1922 President Sir Graham Brady without making them public, and others privately indicated they would. If 54 or more MPs submit letters to Brady, a leadership contest will be triggered.
“I think we are in the 1940s,” said a rebel MP. Another added: “We are just a few.”
On Thursday and Friday, there was an atmosphere of relief bordering on jubilation in Downing Street as Johnson and his team believed they had survived the publication of a damning report on Partygate by senior civil servant Sue Gray, then focused on measures to respond to the cost of living crisis on Thursday.
While a £15billion package of measures announced by Sunak was widely welcomed, many Tories were unhappy that the government was funding part of it by carrying out a massive U-turn that saw it adopt Labor’s plan to an exceptional tax on the profits of oil and gas companies. .
Duncan Smith said that instead of imposing a tax hike on businesses, Sunak should have cut taxes for middle and low incomes and restored the Conservatives’ reputation as a low-tax party.
“He had the leeway not to make an exceptional tax. Boosting growth is the priority. We need to avoid recession, and to do that we need to cut taxes and get people to spend.
“Conservatives believe in lower taxes, leaving people with more money because they make the best choices. Unless we go back to that approach and cut taxes in the fall budget, we are in real trouble.
The Conservatives, he said, now risked earning a reputation as a big, high-tax state party, having also increased National Insurance in violation of a manifesto pledge. “I don’t just think we have a little identity problem, we have a huge identity problem,” he said.
Gavin Barwell, the former Tory MP who served as Theresa May’s chief of staff at No 10, said the party’s electoral prospects under Johnson were bleak: ‘By not taking action against a prime minister, around 60 per cent of the public thinks he should resign, Tory MPs are sleepwalking to be defeated in the next election.
The latest Opinium poll for the Observer finds that 56% of all voters, including 32% of 2019 Conservative voters, think Johnson should quit. The poll was conducted after the publication of the Gray report.
Oliver Heald, the Tory MP for North East Hertfordshire, told his constituents he was speaking with fellow MPs about ‘what happens next’. He added: “I think it will take two to three weeks to find out the answer.” Key by-elections in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton will take place in three weeks. Former cabinet minister Robert Buckland said on Saturday that “changes will have to be made” if the party suffers heavy defeats.
The Liberal Democrats say many of those calling for Johnson’s resignation are taking the Conservative seats they are targeting. “Tory MPs who have spent months defending Boris Johnson against Partygate are finally taking action because they fear losing their seats,” Deputy Leader Daisy Cooper said.
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Johnson caused further astonishment on Friday, just two days after he said he was ‘humbled’ by the Gray report, when it was announced he had rewritten parts of the cabinet code so ministers no longer had to step down for minor infractions. 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 pledge to strengthen the code.
In another potential blow for Sunak, doubts were raised over the weekend over whether the windfall profits tax will rise anywhere near the £5billion the Chancellor claimed on Thursday.
The left-wing Common Wealth center think tank said it could raise only a fraction of that sum due to complex rules that allow investments to be matched by profits.
The warning comes after the Liberal Democrats said delays in introducing the tax meant it missed £3billion of ‘windfall profits’ reported by oil and gas companies in 2021 and £8billion extra pounds so far this year.