In the wake of arguably the worst week of headlines of Boris Johnson's career, the odds about him leaving office early have shrunk. He's now an even money chance to lead the Conservatives at the start of 2024 - scheduled to be the final year of his government.
Is there a swing to Labour?
By the weekend, there was a strong hint that the plethora of scandals surrounding the government were taking a toll. If so, the timing couldn't be worse, ahead of various important elections on Thursday.
Such polls should, as ever be treated with caution. Earlier in the week, Yougov had recorded an 11% Tory lead, using slightly earlier fieldwork. It is possible that any of these polls are outliers and that the partisan split is as entrenched as it seemed before. Nevertheless these numbers should worry Johnson, if not necessarily terrifying his party.
Headlines, not Tories, are driving it
If that is the case, it was surely a result of that terrible news cycle. For once, a normally pliant media abandoned their timidity in favour of a good old-fashioned Tory sleaze story. It almost felt like the 1990s. Even the most partisan press couldn't resist Johnson's alleged quote that he'd 'rather see bodies pile up in their thousands rather than order a third lockdown."
If so, it represents proof that media move markets. None of the conventional signals that would imply a leader was in peril apply here. There remains no hint of a leadership challenge, ministerial resignations or grassroots rebellion, and certainly no evidence of pending electoral doom.
No way are Tory MPs - the only people with the power to remove Johnson - behind this, in the middle of the election campaign. So how should we view this dramatic turn of events, which as far as I can tell, nobody saw coming?
Media dancing to Cummings' tune
It all stemmed from Dominic Cummings. Delivering the revenge that had been rumoured following his sacking. Literally overnight, Westminster commentators who'd previously been happy to ignore much worse corruption, started piling on.
Now reports tell of fear stalking Westminster as Cummings prepares for a Select Committee appearance on May 26th, to discuss mistakes made in the pandemic response. PPE contracts, Test and Trace, the PM's attitude and *those* comments are bound to get an airing.
Next Cummings step and motives are unknown
No media will be able to resist covering it. Soon we will find out whether the hype that has swirled around Cummings for years is legitimate. Is his bark worse than bite? Is he is a gatherer of deadly Kompromat?
We can only guess to what extent this is merely personal, or connected to wider political causes and projects. Cummings was sacked just after the US Election, and before the final Brexit negotiations in which the 'No Deal' outcome favoured by Trump failed to materialise. Until this outburst and media storm, his fabled influence appeared to be a footnote in history.
Further trouble awaits on multiple fronts
Even if Cummings doesn't deal a deadly blow, the months ahead will not be great for Johnson. Various inquiries and court challenges, into Jennifer Arcuri, Covid contracts, the Greensill scandal, are looming.
Granted he has been Teflon, immune to scandal, for decades but perhaps there is a tipping point. One poll showed 50% thought he resign if he is found to have lied over the 'bodies pile high' comment.
Would Tories fare better under Sunak?
This is the calculation for Tory MPs, who have thus far remained loyal. Would they fare better under a different leader without the baggage or scandal? Most obviously Rishi Sunak - available to back at 3.211/5 and 4.57/2 respectively for Next Conservative Leader and Next Prime Minister.
I've long been against Johnson to survive in post for a long time, holding positions that he won't be leader in 2024, July 2022 and to go this year. The current odds about those three targets are 2.01/1, 1.4740/85 and 4.47/2. The first two still very much appeal.
Will scandals affect local elections?
As the media proved in this case, narratives in politics can turn on a sixpence. If that Labour bounce translates into a better than expected election night - London, hold Hartlepool, gain seats in Scotland and English councils - blame will be cast personally on the PM.
It could mark the beginning of the end of the Johnson premiership. Rivals might start openly jostling for position and the Cummings Select Committee appearance would take on even greater significance.
Or it could all be forgotten within hours and the Tories could enjoy a great night, winning Hartlepool, then bask in a post-Covid economic boom. Johnson would be secure for at least another couple of years and the media would set about Keir Starmer. In light of recent years, I'm open to either outcome.
Follow Paul on Twitter and check out his website, Political Gambler.
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