They were once among Boris Johnson’s most loyal defenders. Many of the army of more than 100 MPs who sat in Westminster for the first time in December 2019 felt they owed the prime minister their seat.
So they were initially on their best behaviour, keen in a much-expanded parliamentary party to stand out from their peers and secure early promotion to the lowest rungs of the ministerial ladder. And most still feel that way.
But a small and growing number have been turned off Johnson and feel enough is enough. They bit their tongues through a slew of crises and have now concluded that Johnson will not be the same electoral asset at the next general election as he was at the last.
Among their number was Christian Wakeford, the MP for Bury South perhaps best known for calling the disgraced former cabinet minister Owen Paterson a “cunt” as MPs voted on changing the standards system to save his skin.
Wakeford was a longtime agitator of the government, unafraid to make his feelings known in public. He admitted on Tuesday to having put in a letter calling for a no-confidence vote in Johnson the week before. Then, minutes before prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, he defected to Labour.
However, Wakeford had not been invited to join the group of about two dozen Tory MPs who met twice this week to discuss whether to submit letters.
The first took place on Monday in the office of Chris Loder, the MP for West Dorset. He has made clear his unhappiness at the rule-breaking Downing Street parties, telling constituents: “I’d like you to know that I and most of my colleagues feel deeply embarrassed and humiliated by such revelations.”
The second was on Tuesday afternoon in an office shared by Alicia Kearns, another 2019er who represents Rutland and Melton, and Lee Anderson, the bombastic “red wall” MP for Ashfield. This became known as the “pork pie plot” – a name bestowed by detractors in a reference to the savoury snack that originated in Kearns’s constituency.
Among those also at the 2019ers’ meeting were Gary Sambrook, the MP for Birmingham Northfield, Aaron Bell, the MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, and Tom Randall, the MP for Gedling in Nottinghamshire.
But the newer MPs are not acting alone. After the second meeting, some debriefed more experienced colleagues who are also trying to engineer Johnson’s deposition. And before PMQs was over, the role of longstanding MPs among the rebels was underlined as David Davis, the former leadership contender first elected to parliament in 1987, told Johnson: “In the name of God, go.”
It is understood junior colleagues had been pressing Davis to make a statement publicly calling for Johnson to go, saying the situation needed a “big figure” to intervene.
Kearns is on the 1922 Committee executive, some of whom met at the members-only Carlton Club in London on Tuesday night as speculation reached fever pitch that the number of no-confidence letters was approaching the 54 needed to trigger a vote. Allies of the former senior Ministry of Defence civil servant, who was dropped as a parliamentary private secretary last year, denied she was leading a rebellion.
Such is the level of mistrust that briefing and counter-briefing in Westminster turned to misinformation. A Tory MP wrongly proclaimed that Johnson had personally arrived at the Carlton Club at about 11pm in “a last-ditch desperate attempt to persuade people to support him”.
Rumours also abounded that a special adviser to the culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, had been sent to spy on the group – though she said they were there to speak at a club dinner.
Some older MPs look down their noses at the latest intake, whom they view as too big for their boots. “We’ve got enough problems with kids running No 10 without promoting more 2019 [MPs] with no experience,” one said. Another talked about them condescendingly as “boys and girls”.
Some of the “old guard” of one nation Tories are fearful their fresh-faced colleagues will trigger a confidence vote before the report into Downing Street parties being written by the civil servant Sue Gray is completed. “It boosts his chance of survival if he can say he hasn’t had a fair hearing yet,” one said.
But the new intake feel they have just as much right to make their views known as other colleagues. “Every MP is entitled to their own view no matter how long they’ve been here,” said one. “I don’t think trying to pull rank based on seniority is a good idea.”
There are also still plenty in the new intake who still support Johnson and have not given up on hopes he will lead the party into the next election. A frontbencher said that beyond a few dozen malcontents, the rest backed the prime minister and were “absolutely furious” at their colleagues’ actions. Given the magnitude of Johnson’s success in the 2019 election, they believe he deserves at least one more chance.
Johnson’s supporters come from different pools – red wall MPs, those in Lib Dem marginals, safe seats that became vacant at the last election, and others with complex psephological factors.
But his critics are from equally disparate pools. Having not been present for the last regicide that took place less than three years ago, the 2019ers trying to force Johnson out have no experience at engineering a revolt from the backbenches. Neither they, nor angry older colleagues biding their time until Gray’s findings are released, have won yet.