Boris Johnson’s bitter rivals in the Scottish Conservatives have declared victory, saying their campaign to discredit him as a future Tory leader has been a “great success”.
A senior Scottish Tory source said the former foreign secretary was no longer considered a serious contender to succeed Prime Minister Theresa May, thanks in part to behind-the-scenes lobbying to convince colleagues a Johnson premiership would seriously damage the party in Scotland.
The whispering campaign against the leading Brexiteer – dubbed “Operation Arse” – burst into the open at the Conservative Party conference last year, when a Scottish Tory source said senior figures were “going to do everything we can” to stop Mr Johnson from becoming leader.
Five months on, with the Prime Minister having survived votes of confidence within her party and in the Commons, a source said of the plot: “It seems to me that it was a great success. But should it ever need to be reactivated, it certainly can be.”
The source, who is close to the Prime Minister, went on: “Boris missed his chance. He’s been gone [out of government] for what, six months now? And what’s he done? What has he achieved? I wouldn’t be able to tell you who the front-runner is but it isn’t Boris.”
Last year, with key Leave figures having walked out of government in protest at the Brexit strategy hammered out at Chequers, Scottish Tories became alarmed at internal party polling showing a victory for Mr Johnson in a leadership contest would boost the SNP and Labour in Scotland, putting Westminster and Holyrood gains at risk. His relationship with Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson is particularly frosty.
But Mr Johnson’s influence appears to have peaked with a speech he gave at the party conference in Birmingham in October, which drew the biggest crowd of the weekend to hear him call for a change in Brexit policy. Brexiteers have forced the Prime Minister to return to Brussels and demand a renegotiation of her deal with the EU, but after surviving a confidence vote in December, she is now safe from challenge for a year.
Mrs May told Tory MPs she would not fight the next general election campaign scheduled for 2022, but has given no firm date for her departure.
After two decades with little or no representation at Westminster, the Scottish Conservatives have a growing presence in government, with the Aberdeen West & Kincardine MP Andrew Bowie appointed at Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Prime Minister over Christmas.
In a sign of the growing influence of the party’s Scottish MPs, several Tory leadership contenders have travelled to Scotland in recent months to speak to local constituency associations including Sajid Javid, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. Jeremy Hunt is also understood to have contacted Scottish MPs about visiting their constituencies.
At least one Scottish Conservative remains a strong supporter of Mr Johnson – the Aberdeen South MP Ross Thomson, who has referred himself to the party’s disciplinary panel over an incident in a Commons bar this week.
Mr Thomson escorted the former foreign secretary to his speech in Birmingham, and took to Twitter following coverage of the campaign to discredit Johnson.
“Regardless of your view of @BorisJohnson, today he injected some much-needed energy, optimism, passion and enthusiasm to a flat conference. The reaction in the hall was electric which even those ‘Operation Arseholes’ [sic] can’t deny,” he posted.