Speaking to The Independent, Lord Hayward said that while it was “not impossible” for the prime minister to win a second majority at the ballot box for the Conservatives, it now appeared “unlikely”.
The elections guru suggested that Mr Johnson could still reap the electoral rewards from a “vaccine bounce 2.0”, however, with the booster campaign continuing and Covid restrictions being eased across England.
His comments came as the senior Tory MP Tobias Ellwood told The Independent that there needed to be an “absolute reset” in No 10 – even before the publication of senior civil servant Sue Gray’s report into alleged rule-busting parties held during lockdowns.
With the findings of Ms Gray’s investigation expected to be presented to Mr Johnson next week, Downing Street will be braced for yet more turbulence.
In the last few days, the prime minister has been threatened with a no-confidence vote, told to resign by former cabinet minister David Davis during dramatic scenes in the House of Commons, and confronted with the first defection of a Tory MP to the Labour Party in 15 years.
And with opinion polls now showing more than 30 consecutive leads for Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, Lord Hayward said they had taken a “massive dive for the worse and particularly in Boris’s own personal ratings”, which have also tumbled.
Asked whether Mr Johnson’s personal brand had been permanently damaged by the allegations that have emerged over recent weeks, he replied: “Yes, yes. You can’t go through what he’s gone through without being damaged, permanently damaged.”
But he stressed that the extent of the damage would depend on the outcome of Ms Gray’s inquiry. “I could sit with anybody and we could agree that he’s been damaged in the long term, but the extent of that damage we will not know until we get to post-Gray,” he said.
On the prospect of Mr Johnson winning a majority again, the Tory peer said he believed it was “unlikely”, but added: “I don’t know whether anybody else would be able to. With the current circumstances I don’t think he could, but with the Conservative Party in the current state, if somebody else took over, there’s a possibility – I don’t know.”
He continued: “The reason I say it’s unlikely is because if coronavirus goes really well for him, and he’s able to survive Gray, then the Tory party could be in a very different position, and he would be in a position to actually lead the Tory party and probably win a majority, but it has to be coronavirus-led. It’s not impossible.”
Pressed on whether the prime minister could recover, Lord Hayward replied: “I think the improvement over Christmas [and] new year showed that the position could improve. Whether it would improve completely back to where the Tory party were previously, I think it’s unlikely. But I think now the possibility is much reduced.”
However, he emphasised the potential impact of Covid-related developments, saying: “Vaccination bounce. Freedom bounce. That may actually save both Boris and the Tory party. He had a huge bounce this time last year – it really showed up in the May local elections.
“But that is the one thing that might have a dramatic effect on the opinion polls to the benefit of the Tory party. You can call it ‘vaccine bounce 2.0’.
“If we were in an ordinary era of politics, the answer is no, but we’re not in an ordinary era – one, because Boris is the prime minister, and two, because of coronavirus.”
Meanwhile, Mr Ellwood told The Independent that the publication of Ms Gray’s report would “of course be significant and everyone will scan it carefully”, but cautioned: “We seem to be in almost a state of flux right now, and we should be utilising this time to begin the very tough slog of earning trust back with the British people.”
“You can do that with a major overhaul of No 10 – show that we mean business,” he continued. “It has to happen anyway. Whoever is in charge of No 10, this prime minister or otherwise, they will know that No 10 needs an absolute reset.”
While some Conservative backbenchers have publicly declared that they have submitted letters of no confidence to Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee, many are reserving judgement on Mr Johnson’s leadership until the inquiry by Ms Gray has concluded.
Asked whether Mr Johnson should stay in post, Mr Ellwood echoed the view of many of his colleagues, saying: “Nobody can make that judgement until they’ve seen the report, I don’t think.”
Senior Conservative backbencher and Brexiteer Steve Baker also told The Independent that the report was “absolutely essential”, saying: “I think we’re all waiting for it one way or another, and I feel confident many members of parliament will be hoping it will give them a clear basis on which to take important decisions.”
Asked whether Mr Johnson’s premiership hung in the balance over the report, he replied: “I don’t see how anyone can objectively say otherwise.”
However, Mr Baker went on: “I am as convinced as ever that the Conservative Party is the best hope we have of good government, so I very much hope this report and the next few weeks will decide matters one way or the other.”