British prime minister Boris Johnson survived a bitter no-confidence vote on Monday after 148 lawmakers from his party—more than 40% of Conservative Members of Parliament—declared they had lost confidence in his ability to lead their party and govern the country.
Johnson was embroiled by scandal as a result of an official investigation into several illegal parties at Johnson’s Downing Street office. The investigations were conducted during COVID-19 lockdowns across the country.
While many of the front pages of the British newspapers predicted that Johnson’s victory—a smaller margin than his predecessor Theresa May when she faced a similar challenge in 2018—as the beginning of his eventual demise, some onlookers believe he might hold onto power for some time.
“His fingers will have to be prized off the doorknob of 10 Downing Street,” says Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary’s University in London.
Johnson was the first British sitting Prime Minister to be caught breaking the law during his term of office after he received a fine from London Metropolitan Police in April for participating in one of the illegal gatherings. Since long, the U.K.’s political convention required that ministerial code violations be resigned. Johnson changed the law before an official investigation.
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But Johnson has vowed not to resign over what the media dubbed the “partygate” scandal—compelling some within his own party to withdraw their support for his leadership. The threshold of at least 54 Conservative lawmakers—15% of the total—needed to trigger a vote of no confidence was met on Monday.
Support for the Conservative Party is declining
Even though the Conservatives hold a majority of parliament seats, angered British citizens have led to fears that the next general elections in 2024 will see voters punish them for their partygate behavior.
A growing dissatisfaction among the public is also a result of the most severe cost-of living crisis in decades. This includes post-Brexit trade disputes in Northern Ireland and an economy still reeling from the pandemic.
Upcoming by-elections on June 23 in two Conservative, or Tory, constituencies—which were both triggered by the resignation of lawmakers, one after being found guilty for the sexual assault of a 15-year-old boy, and the other for watching pornography in the House of Commons—are expected to see the Conservative share of the vote slip.
“The biggest problem for Boris Johnson isn’t how unpopular he is among Tory MPs, it’s how unpopular he is among the public,” tweeted George EatonSenior editor at the The New StatesmanFollowing the vote of no confidence,
After losing the seat to the Conservatives at the 2019 general elections, polls show that one of England’s seats is likely to be won back by the Labour Party, Wakefield. At the time, Johnson had led his party to its largest electoral majority in decades, partly by convincing voters in some Labour-backing regions that he would “get Brexit done.”
According to a poll by research firm JL Partners, Johnson’s initial denials that illegal gatherings took place in Downing Street during COVID-19 lockdowns is the main reason for Labour’s rising support.
Tiverton or Honiton is the other seat that’s up for grabs. This would be a safe choice for Conservatives who hold a substantial majority. However, the Liberal Democrat party in centralism is hoping for surprise victories similar to those it won in past by-elections.
Although Johnson and his backers have said it was time to “draw a line” under the leadership row, the partygate story is not expected to fade from headlines soon. In the next weeks, the outcome of an independent probe into Johnson’s mislead Parliament regarding the lockdown parties will be known. Johnson previously told lawmakers that no lockdown rules had been broken by his staff—a claim that was discredited by both an official investigation and the London police.
Johnson will have to resign if he is proven to have intentionally misled Parliament. This process is not straightforward, however, as under the ministerial code it requires proof that Johnson “knowingly” deceived lawmakers. According to Johnson’s COVID-19 interpretation, these gatherings were required for work.
Within his own party, Johnson’s position is protected—for now. Under the Conservative Party’s rules, another confidence vote cannot be called for 12 months. But if the results of the upcoming by-elections are a disappointment for the Conservatives, the party may try to change its own rules to call a vote sooner—which might not end in Johnson’s favor. “I think if things get worse for the Conservative Party, then you’ll begin to see people break away,” says Bale.
While some commentators have suggested that Monday’s vote—although favorable for Johnson—signals the beginning of the end of his leadership, as it did for his predecessor May—Bale says the two situations are different.
With May, who won a vote of no confidence in December 2018, but later in June 2019 stepped down as Prime Minister after losing her parliamentary majority and because she couldn’t get a Brexit deal through, was “about policy not personality,” says Bale. “She had to be got rid of in order to change the government’s Brexit strategy.”
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This isn’t the case with Johnson, however, who faces scrutiny over his integrity. For this reason, Bale says, any attempts to promote popular policies to distract from the partygate scandal won’t work. This time, “the Conservatives would need to get rid of the guy who most voters seem now to have rumbled.” Three-quarters of the public now find Johnson untrustworthy, according to the most recent polling by YouGov.
The public’s disapproval of Johnson was on display June 3 when he was booed by crowds during celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee.
Johnson’s trustworthiness issue has never been a fatal problem at the polls in the past. Nearly half of British voters believed Johnson was not trustworthy when he won in 2019.
“There is a degree of magical thinking about Boris Johnson within the parliamentary Conservative Party,” Bale says. “They see him as this politician with almost superhuman powers, who has twice won the mayoralty in London—what is essentially a Labour-voting city—and who pulled the party back from the brink in 2019.”
The question here is when the magic will wear off. Bale believes that Johnson might convince Conservative skeptics, at least for the moment, that he is capable of charm his way to approval. “He will look back at his personal and his political life, and remind himself and others around him that in the end, he always gets away with it.”
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