In Depth

Will Boris Johnson face leadership challenge if he fails to deliver a Tory-friendly Brexit?

Prime minister battles to quiet rumblings of discontent in his party as talks with EU falter at final hurdle

As negotiations with the EU go down to the wire, Boris Johnson has been warned his job may be at stake if he tables a withdrawal agreement that does not satisfy Conservative MPs eager to “get Brexit done”.

An unnamed MP told political journalist James Forsyth that if Johnson “lets us down, I’ll send my letter in”. And a key figure in the European Research Group (ERG) - which led the charge against Theresa May’s Brexit deal - told Forsyth that the arch-Brexiteers will oppose any agreement struck by the current prime minister that fails to live up to their expectations.

Officials from both the UK and EU have said that a Brexit deal could be tabled “within days”, but amid reports of last-minute “curveball” from the bloc’s negotiators, a no-deal exit continues to loom.

Tory-friendly deal

While many Tory MPs would back the PM no matter what he tables, a number of factions within the Conservative Party are vying for their own, more specific vision of Brexit.

And these factions are in no mood to compromise.

The 60-odd Eurosceptic MPs in the ERG arguably pose the biggest threat, following their threat to vote down any deal that does not protect “UK sovereignty” - in effect, the hardest Brexit possible. 

For the ERG, leaving the EU and reverting to World Trade Organization (WHO) rules “would be just fine”, Politico says. In other words: “No deal, no sweat.”

Former Tory leadership candidate Rory Stewart told ITV News last week that Johnson “cannot afford to lose” the support of the influential group. 

“If he loses those people, if they decide he has signed a Brexit deal which doesn’t respect sovereignty, for example, he’s really toast,” Stewart said.

An unnamed ERG member told The Telegraph’s chief political correspondent Christopher Hope this week that if UK sovereignty is not preserved in the final agreement, “I have no doubt we will vote against the treaty in whatever vote is called”.

Another source added: “Our side has made it clear we trust the PM on his red lines like sovereignty etc. Nevertheless, as a research group, we will read it before deciding. In the unlikely event it does not respect sovereignty, MPs would vote against.”

Can Johnson deliver the required goods?

Any and all of the potential outcomes to the Brexit talks are likely to leave vast swathes of the party unhappy. 

Former minister for higher education George Walden warned back in September that a no-deal exit would be “lunacy” in the midst of the Covid pandemic, as The New European reported at the time.

On the other hand, should Johnson make considerable concessions to get a deal over the line, he could wind up upsetting his party’s hard-line Eurosceptics. 

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen claimed last week that the EU was willing to be “creative” in order to seal the deal.

But The Telegraph’s Hope suggests that if this “creativity” means Eurosceptics view the deal as “BRINO” - ERG code for “Brexit in name only” - the PM “might be seeing more of his young son Wilfred than he currently already does”.

Echoing Stewart’s recent warning, a “Eurosceptic source” told Hope that if a “large body of Tory MPs branded it BRINO” and voted against the party, “Boris is toast”, adding: “They know that and so presumably will avoid it.”

Covid anxiety

Johnson has already faced down revolts within his party without facing a direct leadership challenge. 

But his strategy for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, and the restrictions that have come with it, have been hugely controversial within the party.

Johnson this week faced the largest revolt of his premiership when as the Daily Mirror reports, “more than one in four of his MPs” voted against the new coronavirus tiers for England. 

The simmering tension over the Covid restrictions are “a leadership challenge waiting to happen”, the paper adds.

Who are the challengers?

Political pundits believe that any leadership challenge is unlikely to be spearheaded by members of the ERG, despite their talk of rebellion. Instead, the i news site suggests, MPs who “combine a high public profile with a willingness to needle the government” pose the biggest threat to Johnson.

Leading contenders to take over the top job would be likely to include Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Greg Clark, Tobias Ellwood, Julian Smith, Robert Halfon and Tom Tugendhat, says the site. Many of these runners and riders chair select committees, though most have not gone so far as to vote against the government yet. 

Any leadership contest is likely to be led by Johnson’s popular Downing Street neighbour, however.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak stands out among his fellow cabinet members as one of the few viewed as having waged an effective battle in the ongoing war against Covid.

And despite Sunak insisting that he “definitely” does not want the keys to No. 10, some leading Tories are having none of it after being “charmed by the man next door”, says Bloomberg.

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