I WOKE up yesterday to the nightmare news that Boris is thinking about hanging around for a third term in Downing Street. Once my heart stopped palpitating, I realised the PM was being delusional. After last Thursday’s by-elections, his chances of leading the Tories into the 2024 General Election are remote, to say the least.

Politics is full of surprises, though, so it might be useful to run some of the polling numbers. According to the latest surveys, Labour have a modest six-point lead over the Tories, at a UK level. That is marginal and could easily disappear during a tight General Election race.

However, it would be enough to give Keir Starmer an extra 93 seats, or so. On current projections (with the LibDems on circa 12%), the Tories would lose around 111 seats. Which is why Boris has his coat hanging on the shoogliest of pegs.

The problem with these crude numbers – at least for Starmer – is that they still don’t give Labour an overall majority. They point to a hung Westminster parliament with the SNP, LibDems and the various nationalist parties holding the balance.

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That in itself might be a gamechanger, with the Tories re-fighting the 2024 election like 2015, claiming Labour will do a deal with the uppity Scots. Personally, I doubt if that trope will play as well for a second time. Besides, Nicola goes down quite well in England.

I’m sure these possibilities have already been gamed at SNP HQ. If the courts delay the possibility of a second independence referendum into 2024 then we would face the possibility of indyref2 co-inciding with a UK General Election. If Boris is still “leading” the Tories, the FM and her advisers might well conclude that fighting the General Election on a mandate for opening independence negotiations is a better bet than holding a tricky, non-binding consultative referendum. In other words, the return of Plan B.

Of course, the reverse might hold if Boris gets the boot. The two English by-elections last week were more than disastrous news for the Tories. The sheer size of the LibDem win in Tiverton and Honiton – they grabbed a majority of the vote – was worse than anything that had been predicted. The Tories might not be too worried about colourless Starmer but they can count the prospective losses they will suffer in any LibDem revival. That alone explains why they have to dump Boris in time for 2024.

But who will replace the hapless PM? The original front-runner was Chancellor Rishi Sunak. But talk of Sunak moving houses was always farfetched. He only looked good (temporarily) because he got to print billions of pound notes during the pandemic.

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Since then, he has managed to make every political mistake in the book. First, he raised taxes to record levels just as inflation was accelerating. Then he kept flip-flopping over a windfall levy on the oil companies. OK, he actually imposed a higher levy than pusillanimous Labour had suggested, but nobody noticed.

Then Sunak got his sums wrong and has ended up having to pay massive new interest payments on the National Debt. Finally, he got stroppy when the media exposed the fact that his millionaire spouse was a “non-dom” who avoided paying tax in the UK. Petulance is never a good look in a prospective PM.

If not Dishy Rishi, then who? Top of the usual suspects list is Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary. She has been quietly wining and dining backbench MPs with “fizz with Liz” evenings. Her selling point is that she claims to be a re-incarnation of Maggie Thatcher. However, Thatcher was a hard-headed ideologue yet pragmatic with it. Truss is plain bonkers. And her willingness to override the Northern Ireland Protocol simply to curry favour with Tory MPs is downright dangerous.

Next up is Jeremy Hunt, the former foreign secretary and English health secretary. Hunt’s problem is that he is a centrist (or what counts as one these days) and unlikely to win Tory backbench support unless other contenders mutually self-destruct. Hunt might blunt the rise of the LibDems in England but is hardly going to save Tory Red Wall seats in the north.

Then there is English Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, a refugee from Iraq and a self-made millionaire. I’ve a soft spot for Zahawi as he and I worked in the Channel 4 group at Westminster trying to block a Tory privatisation.

I was a bit surprised when I discovered he was a Tory as I automatically assumed he was Labour. A bit of a pragmatist then, and certainly bright. But he has no real base in the Tory Party and lacks an obvious national project. Perhaps a compromise candidate in extremis but more likely in the game in order to secure a better portfolio from the eventual winner. Of course, there is the odious, super-ambitious Priti Patel but she is too divisive even for the maddest of Tories. Sajid Javid is both clever and has a backbone – he resigned as Johnson’s first chancellor rather than be dictated to by Dominic Cummings. But technocrat Javid is too bland to succeed in the populist game of modern politics.

Penny Mordaunt clearly wants the top job but after her outspoken attacks on Boris she risks falling prey to the old adage that the one wielding the assassin’s knife never succeeds to the throne.

Deputy PM Dominic Raab might have another go but he came sixth in the contest to replace Theresa May, suggesting he lights no fires among the Tory faithful. Besides, as bag carrier for Boris, he is old regime.

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Surprisingly, the politician sneaking up on the inside rail to replace Boris is the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace. As a former soldier, bluff and no-nonsense Wallace is having a “good war” in Ukraine. He’s also an effective manager if anyone can be said to be good at controlling the MoD. Clearly Wallace has no national public profile. But if there is a safe pair of hands who might unite the warring Tory factions, it might be Wallace. Just going through the list of contenders explains why Boris is still in Number 10 – the Tories lack a convincing, popular replacement for the current incumbent. But that has never stopped them before. Johnson’s next political slip will be his last. The succession battle has already begun. So where does that leave Scotland?

The Tories are fighting for their political lives amid an economic crisis of gargantuan historical proportions. The likelihood is they will dump Boris and then do anything required to cling to power.

They will certainly not make it easy for Scotland to hold indyref2 any time soon. Which means we need a vast, ongoing and popular mobilisation in Scotland in favour of cutting ties with the rotten hulk of the Tory government and the rapidly sinking UK economy.

We need to set the agenda on indy and the cost of living crisis, not focus on shenanigans at the UK Supreme Court. We need definitive answers to the Scottish currency question, not vague references to letting the future take care of itself. The Tories are distracted. Now is Scotland’s opportunity.