What 148 rebels are worrying about next: The electoral test

The outcome of the confidence vote in Boris Johnson was worse than those recorded by Margaret Thatcher, John Major, and Theresa May. Credit: PA

A senior Tory source spelt out the PM’s likely response to this bruising confidence vote. They said he would now appeal to rebels to accept the result, unite, and concentrate on getting on with the job. And if they don’t? “That would be unforgivably self-indulgent,” they said, claiming that 148 MPs didn’t trump almost 14 million Conservative voters in the 2019 general election. But for the rebels - this result is far bigger than they expected. 148 MPs means a big majority - if not the vast majority - of backbenchers, and probably a fair few ministers thrown into the mix. It means a confidence vote outcome worse than those recorded by Margaret Thatcher, John Major, and Theresa May - all of whom ultimately went, because they couldn’t hold on or were wiped out in a general election. And last night there were rumours of resignations to follow the outcome.

So where does this leave Boris Johnson? Well, inevitably, it depends on who you speak to. Jacob Rees Mogg told me a majority of one would be enough for the PM to hold on, so to him the eventual outcome of almost 60% was plenty. That is despite him saying Mrs May should go following an even more comfortable win in 2018 - something he yesterday claimed he was wrong to have said. And that was the mantra of other Johnson allies too - one of whom admitted they were very nervous on Sunday afternoon but were buoyed by conversations with colleagues on Monday. They said this was a "conclusive" result; bigger than his victory in the leadership contest; and one that should draw a line under partygate.

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But the number rebels kept mentioning ahead of the vote was 131 - because anything above that would mean Mr Johnson had done worse - proportionally - than Mrs May. And although she survived the confidence vote, many would say it marked the beginning of the end for her premiership. In turn, the PM's supporters would say these are not comparable - and that she eventually went because she kept losing Brexit votes in parliament.

The rows between the two sides could go on and on, but ultimately there is one thing that they both agree on, and that is ultimately it's not what MPs themselves think that matters, but what voters do. Yesterday, the two sides had opposing descriptions of their constituents' reactions. To Cabinet minister Therese Coffey and backbench PM supporters, Paul Bristow and Natalie Elphicke - they support Mr Johnson and want the Tories to get on with the job.

But to MPs like Geoffrey Clifton-Brown and Steve Brine, and many others I spoke to, there is real anger. One massive test of all of this is later this month - when the Tories take on Labour in the red wall seat of Wakefield and the Lib Dems in the southwest seat of Tiverton and Honiton.

What happens there is the next major test for Mr Johnson - and one that could really determine his fate, regardless of this victory.