The Prime Minister may be forced to throw the full weight of the Conservative electoral machine into defending Boris Johnson if he has to fight a by-election over Partygate, a polling expert has said.
Rishi Sunak will have to think strategically over whether he wants to risk losing a Tory marginal a year before a General Election, even if it means saving his potential leadership rival, the pollster said.
Some senior Conservatives, including those close to Mr Johnson, are resigned to the ex-prime minister being found “guilty” by the Privileges Committee of wilfully or recklessly misleading parliament over what he knew about parties during the pandemic.
If Mr Johnson is hit by the most severe sanction, a 10-day suspension from the House of Commons, that could trigger a recall petition in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency, where he holds a majority of 7,210.
Former cabinet minister Nadine Dorries, a close ally of the former prime minister, told her Talk TV programme that she believed Mr Johnson would be found “guilty” by the committee.
Interviewing former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng, Ms Dorries said: “So I think we’re both agreed they’re going to find him guilty?”
Mr Kwarteng replied: “I think they might do… I don’t think their sanctions will be extreme – I think that could backfire. The last thing the government needs, the last thing the party needs is a whole circus around Boris and all of that business. So I don’t think necessarily they’re going to go that far, but I think they will sanction him.”
Asked what would happen if there was a by-election in Uxbridge, Mr Kwarteng said: “If it was held tomorrow, there’s a good chance Labour would win the seat.”
Chris Hopkins, director of Savanta, said an MRP poll – which tries to forecast results on a seat-by-seat basis – by the firm in December predicted a Labour gain in Uxbridge and South Ruislip.
But he added: “By-elections are notoriously ‘unique and weird’ and national polling distilled into constituency-by-constituency results, which MRP is, doesn’t take into account local factors unique to a by-election.”
He said that a by-election in Uxbridge would be a “whole new level of ‘unique and weird’” because Mr Johnson would be the candidate, and there would be some advantage for him as an incumbent as well as a formerly popular prime minister.
Turnout would be higher than usual due to the high-profile nature of the seat, Mr Hopkins predicted.
He added: “Yes he can hold it, but it’ll take a big effort, local people getting behind him, leaning on his incumbency factor, and possibly a poor Labour campaign.
“Given its proximity to Westminster and its marginality, I’d imagine ministers will be mandated to campaign there…
“I think Sunak will probably need to think strategically about the impact on general party momentum were they to lose such a seat, and I think that should outweigh any personal negativity towards Johnson or any sense that they wouldn’t mind him losing because he causes trouble from the backbenches.”
Whilst many in Westminster may be preoccupied with what a possible by-election would mean for the future of Mr Johnson’s career, rival campaigners argued that the majority of constituents in Uxbridge are not interested in either this or him.
According to Labour sources, the main concern for voters on doorsteps is the cost of living as well as local issues like crime and healthcare – not the showmanship of the former PM.
“2019 Tories are feeling financially precarious and worse off – both families and pensioners – with mortgages, food bills, energy, etcetera,” the source said.
“Also there are some concerns around crime and antisocial behaviour and that no new hospital has been built.”
They said the feedback they are getting whilst out campaigning was that people feel nothing has got better for them in recent years.
And Mr Johnson does not have the reputation for being a brilliant constituency MP which might have helped to redeem himself locally even in the face of nationwide hostility.
“The general feeling that Boris Johnson is not present – more of a personality than a local MP that actually delivers things,” the source said.
This approach can be seen in the campaign leaflets of the Labour candidate Danny Beales, who is promising to be a “full time local MP” and pushing messaging around improving public services as well as asking residents to fill out a “cost of living survey” to give a picture of the challenges they face.
A Liberal Democrat source said there had already been a meeting of senior members of the party to discuss the possibility of a recall petition in Uxbridge.
The party campaigned successfully for a recall petition in the Welsh seat of Brecon and Radnorshire in 2019 and the source said they were preparing to “dust off the book” and use a similar strategy to “throw everything” at ensuring a by-election goes ahead should the opportunity arise.