LONDON – Prime Minister Boris Johnson survived a tense no-confidence vote on Monday, fended off a mutiny that nonetheless shakes him and predicts a volatile period in British politics as he fights to stay in power and lead a divided Conservative party.
The vote, 211 to 148, failed to meet the majority of Tory lawmakers needed to impeach Mr Johnson. But it made clear how much his support has dwindled since last year, when a scandal erupted over revelations that he and his senior staff were throwing parties at 10 Downing Street that violated the government’s lockdown rules. More than 40 percent of conservative lawmakers voted against him in an unexpectedly large uprising.
Johnson pledged to stay on, stating that the win would end months of speculation about his future. “It is a convincing result, a decisive result,” the Prime Minister said from Downing Street after the results of the secret ballot were announced.
“As a government,” added Mr Johnson, “we can focus and get on with the things that really matter to people.”
However, history shows that conservative prime ministers subject to such a vote – even if they win it – are usually pushed from office, if not immediately then within a few months.
Johnson won a smaller share of his party’s support on Monday than his predecessor, Theresa May, in 2018, or Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1990, when they survived confidence votes. Mrs. May was forced out of the house six months later. Mrs Thatcher only lasted a few days.
And yet Mr Johnson is a unique figure in British politics, who gleefully defies convention and often seems immune to the rules of political gravity. With a comfortable majority in parliament, his party is in no danger of losing power. He could choose to tame the storm, claiming, as he did Monday night, that he was given a bigger mandate than when he was first elected leader of the party in July 2019.
Yet for a politician who led the Tories to a landslide election victory in 2019 with a promise to “get Brexit done,” it was a bruise from grace — one that could expose him to a political uprising in his party, a delegated opposition. , and further electoral setbacks that weaken his credibility.
In two and a half years, Mr Johnson has gone from being Britain’s most trusted voter – a celebrity politician who redrawn the country’s political map – to a scandal-stricken figure whose job has been in jeopardy since the first reports of illegal lockdown parties ended appeared in November.
When the British paid tribute to Queen Elizabeth’s 70-year reign last week, they turned against the chaotic tenure of their prime minister. On Friday, Mr. Johnson was loudly booed by the crowd in St. Paul’s Cathedral as he and his wife Carrie attended a thanksgiving service for the Queen.
That moment may have crystallized the loss of public support for Mr Johnson, an ethically flexible journalist turned politician whose peccadillos were more often than not forgiven by an audience he proved adept at charming.
Still, Mr Johnson will remain in power for the time being, and under the party’s current rules, he cannot face another vote of no confidence for a year. The chances of removing him depend on different wildcards.
Will his cabinet turn against him, as Mrs Thatcher’s did after the 1990 vote, prompting her to resign quickly? Will the party threaten to change the rules and hold a second vote of no confidence, as it proposed with Ms. May, to persuade her to negotiate her exit? Will Mr Johnson gamble by calling an early general election, to get a mandate from the public that he couldn’t get from his party?
Johnson tried to avert questions about new elections Monday night, saying only, “I’m definitely not interested in snap elections.”
In 1995 Prime Minister John Major unleashed and won a leadership contest in the Conservative Party, only to inflict a crushing defeat on Tony Blair and the Labor Party two years later. Given Britain’s economic problems and the Conservative Party’s weakness in the polls, some Tories fear a similar outcome this time around.
Opposition leaders seized on the result to portray conservative lawmakers as having endorsed the leadership of a law-breaking prime minister.
“Conservative MPs have made their choice tonight,” Labor Party leader Keir Starmer said. “They have ignored the wishes of the British public.” Voters, he said, are “satisfied – fed up – with a prime minister who promises a lot but never delivers.”
The result has left conservatives unsettled and divided after a tense day in which senior members of the party openly spar over social media. Some lawmakers argued that his position had become untenable.
Roger Gale, a conservative lawmaker, expressed surprise at the scale of the uprising. “I think the Prime Minister needs to go back to Downing Street tonight and think very carefully about where he goes from here,” Gale told the BBC.
But one of Mr Johnson’s supporters, James Cleverly, a minister at the State Department, Commonwealth and Development, said “he won comfortably and now we must get on with the work.” He said of Mr Johnson’s electoral track record: “There is no other candidate who will get anything like that level of support.”
Mr Johnson was greeted warmly when he addressed Conservatives earlier in the afternoon, with some lawmakers slamming their desks in gestures of support, according to those in attendance. But he was also asked challenging questions, and when the members left the committee room afterwards, it was clear that he had not convinced all those who opposed him to call off their mutiny.
“I told the Prime Minister that if he broke the law, he would have to leave,” said Steve Baker, an influential pro-Brexit lawmaker who has called on Mr Johnson to resign. “He’s clearly broken the law, he’s clearly agreed to the law being broken, so I’m sticking to my word that I told him to go.”
Mr Baker noted that he had helped Mr Johnson become Prime Minister and described it as a “terrible moment”.
Mr Cleverly said the Prime Minister was “in a very serious mode” and that his speech was “light on jokes and heavy on plans and policy”.
Some Key Moments in Queen Elizabeth’s Reign
“He actually has a plan for what he wants to do next, how we deliver on the promises we made in the 2019 general election,” he said, “how we continue to deliver on very, very difficult times.”
The final chapter of this drama began on Sunday when Mr Johnson was informed by Graham Brady, the head of a committee of stragglers from the Conservative Party, that the threshold of 54 letters calling for a vote of no confidence had been reached. Mr Brady and Mr Johnson then negotiated the timing of a vote, with the Prime Minister urging it to be held quickly.
That gave Mr Johnson a tactical advantage as it took away from potential rivals the time to stage a challenge for him. A potential challenger, Jeremy Hunt, tried to act quickly, declaring on Monday that he would “vote for change.” Mr Hunt, a former health minister and secretary of state, lost to Mr Johnson as party leader in 2019.
Nadine Dorries, Mr Johnson’s culture minister and one of his most staunch defenders, bitterly criticized Mr Hunt for “destabilizing the party and the country to serve your own ambition.” In a post on Twitter, she said: “You did almost everything wrong, now you’re wrong again.”
The timing of the vote was also set by Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee, a four-day celebration that ended on Sunday. Mr Brady was determined not to let news of a no-confidence vote overshadow the festivities. As a result, Britain’s political drama took place behind closed doors as the political establishment came together to pay tribute to the Queen in a series of public events.
After being notified of the vote, Mr Johnson and his wife Carrie attended an election at Buckingham Palace, where his face showed no signs of the brewing crisis. Several lawmakers who had filed letters calling for votes asked Mr. Brady that they were postdated so they wouldn’t be seen as interfering with the anniversary.
At a star-studded concert Saturday night, Mr. Johnson looked at performers including Alicia Keys and Queen, as conservative lawmakers delved into a memo from anonymous members circulating in their WhatsApp group, warning that not ejecting Mr. Johnson to ruin the party, according to a report in The Telegraph.
The blunt assessment of the memo, published by The Telegraph, was that “Boris Johnson is no longer an electoral asset.”
Megan Special reporting contributed.