Rebel Conservative MPs are panicking about the timing of a push to remove Boris Johnson, with some expressing doubt that next week is the right moment to trigger a no-confidence vote.
Around 30 backbenchers have publicly called for the prime minister to resign, and backbenchers believe they are close to reaching the threshold of 54 no-confidence letters needed for a leadership ballot.
But one Tory MP keen to see Mr Johnson replaced has urged colleagues to withdraw their no-confidence letters to prevent a vote happening “by accident” at the start of next week, according to The Guardian.
Anxious anti-Johnson backbenchers are said to fear that potential leadership candidates have not had enough time to mobilise and encourage wavering MPs to look beyond Mr Johnson.
Some believe the period after two by-elections in June would present the best chance of defeating the PM in a confidence vote.
Rebels have previously told The Independent that they fear a confidence vote could be triggered too soon “accidentally” – allowing Mr Johnson a good chance of staying in power for another 12 months.
Tory rules mean that a majority of the party’s MPs – 180 – would have to vote against Mr Johnson in order to spark a leadership contest to find his replacement. If the PM survives, he is protected from facing another vote for a year.
Some of Mr Johnson’s allies are said to be keen on a no-confidence vote in the period before the 23 June by-elections in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton.
Conservative polling guru Lord Hayward told Sky News: “If I was a plotter, I’d probably want it to go on for a while because it allows the conversations to take place longer. The byelections on 23 June … will be key.”
The Tory peer added: “If I was a Boris fan, I’d probably want it as quickly as possible to get it out of the way because 54 is relatively easy. 180, which is the number on a vote of confidence, is a different matter.”
Andrew Bridgen – the Tory MP who recently resubmitted his letter after withdrawing it at the outbreak of the Ukraine war – reportedly predicted in a Tory WhatsApp group that Downing Street would be told on Monday that 54 letters had already gone in.
Tory MP Mark Francois, who has not called for Mr Johnson to go, suggested the prime minister still had work to do to next week to convince wavering backbenchers that things will change after Partygate.
“We will come back on Monday and colleagues will ask, ‘Who is going to take responsibility for this?’” he told Times Radio on Friday. “Having spoken to colleagues in past few days, they mood is, they want to know, ‘Who is going to carry the can?’”
It comes as the head of the Grassroots Conservatives activist group called on Mr Johnson to resign over the Partygate scandal – saying the PM would “put off voters” at the next general election.
Ed Costelloe told The Telegraph that Mr Johnson had not been “wholly honest” about the law-breaking gatherings in Downing Street. “If he had any sense he would resign before he was pushed.”
Lesley Bambridge, the Tory mayor of West Norfolk, said she feared Mr Johnson had now “lost his grip” on No 10. “I think it is time for him to seriously reflect and decide whether he is the right man for the job at the moment.”