Boris Johnson has heavily hinted that he is ready to call a snap general election in response to attempts to oust him, despite warnings that the Queen may block him from doing so.
The Prime Minister said he might try to force through a quickfire vote to get re-elected by the public, after his Cabinet and mutinous MPs launched a bid to boot him out of Number 10.
Mr Johnson’s future has been thrown into doubt by his handling of the groping allegations against Chris Pincher, the former deputy chief whip.
There has been Tory anger over Number 10’s initial defence that Mr Johnson did not know about the claims before promoting Mr Pincher, which later turned out to be false.
During an appearance before the House of Commons liaison committee on Wednesday, he was repeatedly grilled over whether he was considering going to the country in a final bid to save his premiership.
Under heavy questioning, Mr Johnson gave contradictory answers - saying he would “of course rule out” a snap poll, but also saying that one may be necessary to fulfil his mandate.
“History teaches us that the best way to have a period of stability and government and not to have early elections is to allow people with mandates to get on,” he said to one MP.
Pressed on what he meant by those remarks, he replied that a quickfire vote would not be necessary “unless people ignore that very good principle”.
He went on to say that governments with “a substantial mandate from the electorate” should be left to get on with delivering, adding that it was “sensible not to get bogged down in electoral politics”.
Later on, when urged by Bernard Jenkin, the veteran Tory MP, to resign and rule out a snap election, he said such a contest was “the last thing this country needs”.
But he also insisted: “I’m not going to step down,” and warned that: “The risk is people continue to focus on this type of thing and that is a mistake.”
Mr Johnson was asked if he needed the Queen’s permission to call a vote. He replied that the public don’t want “politicians to be engaged in electioneering now or in the future”.
The Prime Minister would require the monarch’s signature to dissolve Parliament and she has the power to refuse such a request if it breaches certain constitutional conventions.
A government document called the “dissolution principles” sets out the conditions under which a sitting prime minister can go to Buckingham Palace and ask for an election.
They state a leader must “be the accepted leader of the political party that commands the majority of the House of Commons”.
Mr Johnson would also have a duty to ensure that the Queen was not “drawn into party politics” by a demand from No 10 to go to the country.
A separate convention dating back to 1950, known as the Lascelles Principles, details further conditions under which the monarch can turn down a request to dissolve parliament.
One test is whether they can “rely on finding another prime minister who could govern for a reasonable period with a working majority in the House of Commons”.
Another is whether an election would be detrimental to the economy, an argument which could be used given spiralling inflation and the cost of living crisis.
The Queen has never been put in a position where she needed to consider turning down a snap election and a request from the Prime Minister would be highly awkward for Buckingham Palace.
Yet there are Tory MPs who hope that, if their leader were to act in such a way, the monarch would be advised by officials to reject a new vote.
“There’s a threat from the Prime Minister that if the Tory party continues to misbehave, I’m going to call a general election,” one rebel backbencher told The Telegraph.
“I could easily see the Palace would be in its absolute right to say: you’ve had two elections, your party can command a majority in the House of Commons, so you’re not going to have a general election.
“You make it work under your leadership or find a new one but I’m not dissolving parliament at a great time of national uncertainty.”
Mr Johnson would undoubtedly face stiff resistance from across the Tory party if he were to attempt to forge ahead with a snap election.
Changes to rules that would allow another confidence vote in his leadership could be rushed through and he would likely be hit with further resignations.
“If he tries to call an election, we’re going to have to blow his brains out - politically speaking, of course,” one MP told the HuffPost website.
In recent weeks, rebel Conservatives have become more nervous that the Prime Minister could trigger a snap vote in a last ditch bid to save his premiership.
Many believe that the rumours are just an attempt by David Canzini, his chief of staff, to scare wavering MPs who are worried about losing their seats back into line.
But others fear Mr Johnson may decide to gamble before he faces a worsening cost of living crisis, plus a fresh Commons investigation into partygate this autumn.
Nadhim Zahawi, the new Chancellor, refused to rule out the possibility of a snap election as he held his first round of interviews in the job on Wednesday morning.
“The Prime Minister will make a decision on any general election,” he told LBC, adding that dire opinion polling was “very much based” on the public “seeing a divided party”.
The Prime Minister has the power to call a snap poll whenever he wishes, now that the Fixed Terms Parliament Act has been repealed.
That legislation, introduced in 2011, had restricted elections to every five years unless a two-thirds Commons majority voted to go to the public earlier.
Speaking at the liaison committee, the Prime Minister said the “earliest date” he was envisaging for the next election was in 2024.
But before the wave of resignations that have rocked his leadership, Conservative Campaign Headquarters was “war-gaming” an early vote if Sir Keir Starmer is fined and forced to resign over beergate.
“If Labour ends up in a leadership election, that could change the electoral dynamic and the party’s planning at the highest level,” an insider told The Times.
But the resignations of Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid and the weakening of Mr Johnson’s position in the last 24 hours may have changed that calculation.
The Labour leader has already called for Mr Johnson to quit and has said he wants to see the country go to the polls immediately to secure a “fresh start for Britain”.
“This government is collapsing, the Tory party is corrupted, and changing one man at the top of the Tory party won’t fix the problems,” he told broadcasters on Wednesday.
Meanwhile Steve Reed, his shadow justice secretary, insisted that Labour is “ready to fight” a general election immediately, should one be called by Mr Johnson.