Rebel Conservative backbenchers are plotting a “more organised” attack on Boris Johnson, sources say, despite fresh rumours of early election that could yet thwart their plans.
Tories in the 80 most marginal seats in the UK were asked to file their campaign plans for a general election with CCHQ on Thursday. The request came during an away day for a “target seats launch event” held in May.
Although long-planned, the move has reignited concerns among backbenchers that Boris Johnson could call a snap vote this autumn, potentially putting marginal MPs at risk of losing their seats in the hope of maintaining an overall majority.
One backbencher told Insider: “He’s going to go for an Oct. 27 election … Why are we sitting an extra week in September? We normally do two weeks. This time it’s three. So what is that third week for if not wash up?”
The wash-up period refers to a period of time before parliament dissolves where MPs hurry through unfinished legislation.
Another MP said Tories were “on standby for an election anytime from September,” noting that it was more likely “if they go for the PM.”
He added: “It may not happen until May 2024, but we will be ready to rock and roll as a party by the end of summer in our seats… loads of us already are.”
Tory MP Alec Shelbrooke told GB News an early election was a viable prospect because “we have got such a trial coming towards us” and it would “draw the line” under partygate and other matters.
Speaking to journalists at the NATO summit on Wednesday, Johnson refused three times to rule out a snap election, saying: “I don’t comment on those sorts of things” and “I am not offering commentary” as he insisted he was “here to comment on policy, on the agenda of government.”
However, one of the rebel MPs that prompted last month’s vote of no confidence told Insider Johnson’s remark was a “red herring,” potentially being put about as a “scare tactic” to rally support behind the prime minister.
The MP said there was recognition that “if people want to be effective, we have to be more organised,” suggesting that another confidence vote may take place following what he called a “beauty contest” of leadership hopefuls during autumn’s party conference.
His comments about the party conference echoed those made by colleagues following Johnson’s decision to pull out of a conference with northern MPs, angering some who had expected him to show up.
Backbenchers who make up the Northern Research Group of Tory MPs are expected to be heavily courted, having given Johnson the benefit of the doubt in the last vote.
Would-be rivals Tom Tugendhat MP and Chancellor Rishi Sunak have already begun the charm offensive, and others including ministers Penny Mordaunt, Ben Wallace, Liz Truss, and Nadhim Zahawi are active behind the scenes, sources said.
Urging Cabinet ministers to act, the MP played down an oft-quoted adage that “he who wields the knife never wears the crown,” saying: “The knife has already been wielded — by several groups of colleagues who voted against him.”
The party conference is not the only critical point facing the prime minister this autumn, with the privileges committee report into whether Johnson deliberately misled Parliament now underway and expected to report back later this year.
Johnson has also pushed back a planned reshuffle until autumn, according to a Times of London report, which sources interpreted as a tacit acknowledgement of his precarious position.
The economic situation is also expected to get worse, with inflation predicted to peak at 11% and the energy price cap due to rise again in October.
But triggering an early election is seen as a highly risky move, after the Conservatives lost both Wakefield and Tiverton & Honiton in by-elections earlier this month.
Recent polling seen by Insider has suggested that even Johnson himself may be at risk of losing his seat in Uxbridge and South Ruislip. That led one MP to speculate the prime minister would “do the chicken run” and go for a safe seat that is being vacated.
While the party is currently without a lead party chairman, following Oliver Dowden’s resignation over the by-election results, various names are circulating as possible replacements.
Nigel Adams, a minister without portfolio who led the shadow whipping operation earlier this year, is seen by sources as a top contender, though he has ruled himself out, The Telegraph reported.
Other names in the frame, according to the paper, include Stephen McPartland and Rob Halfon. The latter previously served as Conservative Party deputy chairman.
It is not clear whether Ben Elliot, who is currently party co-chairman, will remain following criticism from senior backbenchers over his links with Russia.