Could 2023 see a new Tory leadership crisis and Boris Johnson return?

This article was first published on 24th December 2022 at

This time last year, the big political betting story was whether Boris Johnson could survive ‘Partygate’. Having long predicted he would leave office before 2024, that proved a very successful market but I couldn’t have imagined the Tories would change leaders twice during 2022.

Polls point to a Tory wipeout

Given the party’s dire standing in the polls and looming catastrophe at the next election, it is certainly fair to ask whether we will see another during 2023. As this recent MRP illustrates, virtually no Tory MP is safe. The events of 2022 cemented their reputation for ruthlessness towards leaders deemed to be losers.

Rishi Sunak is currently rated 20% likely to leave office during 2023 at odds of [5.0]. Those odds partly account for the possibility of a general election being held. 2024 is clear favourite at 2.3.

Kent chaos indicates grassroots anger

Another factor to consider is that the party is now fundamentally divided and perhaps impossible to manage.

Take this news from Hythe in Kent. A Tory councillor has been forced to stand down after his links to fascists were exposed and, according to the Express, the party are struggling to find a replacement candidate in what would normally be a safe Tory seat.

The argument put forward in this piece is that nobody wants to represent the party in its current form. That Sunak and Jeremy Hunt lack legitimacy among the grassroots. Tax rises in the latest budget are deeply unpopular and fear of revolt explains precisely why Sunak has u-turned on issues such as onshore wind and housebuilding targets.

Cruddas campaign could gain momentum

It echoes the challenge to the leadership from mega-donor Lord Cruddas. Having led a failed campaign to reinstate Johnson over the summer, Cruddas has formed the Conservative Democratic Organisation. He aims to secure greater power for the grassroots over the selection of MPs, and restate their power to choose the party leader. Priti Patel is supportive and I’ve noted increased activity online around this cause.

This is an especially sore point, because Tory members rejected Sunak in favour of Liz Truss. When she was ousted, MPs installed Sunak without reference to the membership and, critically, failed to give Johnson enough backing to return. The general consensus was that Johnson would have won such a contest among the members.

Reform present new right-wing threat

There is also a growing threat from the Right in the form of the latest Nigel Farage/Richard Tice vehicle, Reform UK. Given they no longer have the totemic issue of Brexit to hoover up discontented Tory voters, their polling around 6-8% should alarm the Tory leadership. No way they can turn around vast polling deficits to Labour without these voters.

Reform’s support is coming mostly at Tory expense. They are nowhere near the level one would need to challenge in a specific constituency, and failed miserably in two recent low turnout by-elections – precisely the scenario in which a rising small party might expect to break through. However when you consider it took Farage’s UKIP a decade or so to poll at this level, their ascent has been rapid.

As ever, Farage’s weapon is immigration, predictably seeking to capitalise on migrant boats arriving at our shores and the vast rise in legal migration numbers. He talks of destroying the Tory party and, at the very least, is seeking to exert pressure on Sunak’s government to dance to his tune. A playbook he already mastered with Brexit.

Sunak remains beholden to ERG

This line of attack may lack electoral appeal among swing voters, and more likely harms the Tory brand. However this explains why far-right rhetoric from the likes of Home Secretary Suella Braverman is tolerated by the leadership.

He is beholden to her ERG faction, whose support for him in October killed off Johnson’s comeback hopes. It is why the government dare not talk publicly about new Swiss-style Brexit deals or returning to the Single Market.

This version of the Tories risks being squeezed on both flanks. Despite Hunt’s budget striking a relatively centrist tone, the Tories aren’t as yet regaining ground lost to Labour when the Johnson, and then Truss, regimes imploded.

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