Senior Conservative MPs said on Monday that Boris Johnson was likely to face a vote of no confidence in his leadership of the party if the Tories lose two parliamentary by-elections next month.
Two more Conservative MPs on Monday called for the prime minister to quit following the partygate scandal, including former attorney-general Jeremy Wright.
Wright said the affair had done “real and lasting damage” to the government’s reputation, adding: “For the good of this and future governments, the prime minister should resign.”
A total of 26 Tory MPs have now publicly called on Johnson to quit, with some making the plea following publication of a damning report last week by senior civil servant Sue Gray into the partygate scandal.
The report outlined a culture of drinking and lawbreaking in Downing Street during coronavirus restrictions.
For a vote of no confidence in Johnson’s leadership to take place, 54 Tory MPs must submit letters requesting a ballot to Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee of Conservative backbenchers.
The number of letters that have so far been submitted to Brady is in the low 40s, two senior Tory MPs estimated. Only Brady knows the actual number because it is meant to be a secret process.
Letters requesting a no-confidence vote have trickled in since Gray’s report, mostly from MPs who could face a strong challenge from Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidates at the next general election.
Several senior Conservative MPs said that if the party lost two by-elections in Tiverton and Honiton in Devon and Wakefield in West Yorkshire on June 23, it could prompt more Tories to submit letters to Brady and ensure that the 54 threshold is hit.
The Lib Dems are aiming to seize Tiverton and Honiton from the Conservatives, while Labour is seeking to secure Wakefield from the Tories.
One minister said: “There will be another round [of no-confidence letters] post the by-elections.”
He added that the Tiverton and Honiton result would be “key” as to whether Johnson faced a no-confidence vote. “Most of the people worried are facing the Lib Dems, and that seat will show us had bad the threat is.”
Another influential Conservative MP predicted a no-confidence vote after the by-elections.
A former cabinet minister said criticism of Johnson could “blow up” after the results.
Another Tory MP claimed that the mood inside the parliamentary party was moving towards a no-confidence vote because “it’s terminal when your colleagues are convinced you cannot win a majority at the next general election”.
One senior Conservative said he did not expect Brady to make any announcements this week. Parliament returns after its latest recess on June 6.
Downing Street declined to comment. Another minister said Conservative MPs were minded to see whether the government’s new £15bn package to ease the cost of living crisis would improve the party’s standing.
“I think people will wait and see what happens post-partygate,” he added. “Do we float back up a bit? Or does cost of living stuff pull us down again?”
If the 54-letter threshold for a no-confidence vote is reached, 180 Tory MPs would be required to vote in a ballot against Johnson for him to be removed as Conservative leader and prime minister.
One close ally of Johnson predicted that if a no-confidence vote happened, the former London mayor would fight to stay as party leader.
“Boris’s argument to the party is simple: he’s never lost a national election,” he added. “Against all the odds, he won London twice, the EU referendum and the 2019 election. Do you really want to swap him out for someone who has zero track record of winning an election?”