LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson survived a no-confidence vote on Monday, securing enough support from his Conservative Party to remain in office despite a rebellion that leaves him a weakened leader with an uncertain future.
Although he is well-known for his ability not to be embarrassed, this charismatic leader struggled to move on from revelations about him and his staff holding boozy parties which flouted COVID-19 regulations. His support from fellow Conservative lawmakers is declining as many see him, who is renowned for being able to communicate with voters well, as more of a liability than an asset during elections.
Johnson was supported by 211 of the 359 Conservative legislators. This is more than the minimum number required to stay in power but it still represents a rebellion of 148 MPs. Many political observers predicted that Johnson would win the challenge, even though he had no clear contender.
But the rebellion represents a watershed moment for him — and is a sign of deep Conservative divisions, less than three years after Johnson led the party to its biggest election victory in decades.
Johnson’s winning margin is less than that secured by his predecessor Theresa May in a similar vote in December 2018. Six months later, she was forced to quit.
Johnson is a charismatic leader who has been known for connecting with voters. However, Johnson and his staff have struggled to move on from revelations about boozy parties he hosted that flouted COVID-19 rules.
Johnson took the helm of Britain in 2019 and has seen it out of the European Union twice and suffer from a pandemic that left the country economically and socially shaken. The vote comes as Johnson’s government is under intense pressure to ease the pain of skyrocketing energy and food bills
Graham Brady of the Conservative Party announced Monday that letters had been received calling for a No-confidence vote by at least 54 Tory legislators. That was sufficient to allow him to initiate the measure as per party rules. Hours later, party members gathered by the hundreds in a corridor in Parliament to cast their votes in a wooden-paneled room.
Johnson’s Downing Street office said the prime minister welcomed the vote as “a chance to end months of speculation and allow the government to draw a line and move on.”
Johnson addressed dozens of Conservative lawmakers in a House of Commons room before the vote as he tried to shore up support, vowing: “I will lead you to victory again.”
“Tonight we have a chance to end the media-driven focus on the leadership of the Conservative Party … We have the chance to stop talking about ourselves and start talking exclusively,” he said.
Discontent that has been building for months erupted after a 10-day parliamentary break that included a long weekend of celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee. For many, the four-day holiday was a chance to relax — but there was no respite for Johnson, who was booed by some onlookers as he arrived for a service in the queen’s honor at St. Paul’s Cathedral on Friday.
Continue reading: The Longest-Reigning Monarch, Queen Elizabeth II Celebrates Her Platinum Jubilee
Brady said some lawmakers who submitted no-confidence letters had asked for them to be held back until after the jubilee weekend — but even so, the threshold was still reached on Sunday.
Johnson’s allies insisted he would stay in office if he wins by even a single vote. Previous prime ministers who had survived no-confidence votes ended up severely degraded.
Johnson was named the prime minister of Britain in July 2019. This caps a wild ride to the top. Johnson had previously held important offices such as London mayor and U.K. Foreign secretary. However, he also spent time on the political fringes after committing self-inflicted errors. His ability to bounce back and show an unusual ability to ignore scandals and build relationships with voters was something that many Conservatives believed was more important than any doubts about him or his judgment.
But concerns came to a head after an investigator’s report late last month that slammed a culture of rule-breaking inside the prime minister’s office in a scandal known as “partygate.”
Sue Gray, a civil service investigator, described the alcohol-fueled parties that Downing Street staff held in 2020-2021 when there were pandemic restrictions which prevented U.K. citizens from visiting their dying loved ones or socializing.
Gray said the “senior leadership team” must bear responsibility for “failures of leadership and judgment.”
Johnson, who was present at one party while in office, also received a 50 Pound ($63) penalty from police. He is now the first prime Minister to have this sanctioned.
The prime minister said he was “humbled” and took “full responsibility” — but insisted he would not resign. He urged Britons to “move on” and focus on righting the battered economy and helping Ukraine defend itself against a Russian invasion.
However, a rising number of Conservatives believe Johnson is a liability and will make them lose the next election. This must take place by 2024.
“Today’s decision is change or lose,” said Jeremy Hunt, who ran against Johnson for the Conservative leadership in 2019 but has largely refrained from criticizing him since. “I will be voting for change.”
Lawmaker Jesse Norman, a longtime Johnson supporter, said the prime minister had “presided over a culture of casual law-breaking” and had left the government “adrift and distracted.”
Another Tory legislator, John Penrose, quit Monday as the prime minister’s “anticorruption champion,” saying Johnson had breached the government code of conduct with the behavior revealed by partygate.
But senior ministers offered messages of support for Johnson — including some who would be likely to run in the Conservative leadership contest that would be triggered if he is ousted.
“The Prime Minister has my 100% backing in today’s vote and I strongly encourage colleagues to support him,” Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, one of the favorites to succeed Johnson, wrote in a tweet.
Johnson will likely face greater pressure despite his win. The government is being pressured by the conflict in Ukraine and the simmering EU-EU feud as well as the rising inflation.
According to polls, the Labour Party leads nationally. The Conservatives may lose special elections for two constituencies in the parliamentary district where the incumbent Tory legislators were expelled by scandals involving sex.
Johnson tried to focus on broader issues, promising colleagues he would cut taxes — a policy popular with Tories — and noting that he spoke Monday to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He has been a vocal supporter of Ukraine’s cause, a stance shared by his possible successors.
Continue reading: Inside Zelensky’s World
Cabinet minister Steve Barclay, a Johnson ally, said toppling the leader now would be “indefensible.”
“The problems we face aren’t easy to solve” but Conservatives have the right plan to tackle them, he wrote on the Conservative Home website.
“To disrupt that progress now would be inexcusable to many who lent their vote to us for the first time at the last general election, and who want to see our prime minister deliver the changes promised for their communities.”
Steve Baker, who is an outspoken Brexit supporter and whose opposition to May allowed Johnson to take power, stated that Johnson should be voted for because Johnson has broken the law.
He predicted before the vote that Johnson would likely “formally win” but said that would not settle the matter.
“What that means over the months ahead, I don’t know,” Baker said.
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