British Prime Minister Boris Johnson survived a no-confidence motion Monday, securing enough support from his Conservative Party to stay in office despite a rebellion that leaves him a weakened leader with an uncertain future. .
Known for his ability to shrug off scandal, the charismatic leader has struggled to turn a page following revelations that he and his staff repeatedly threw booze parties that flouted the COVID-19 restrictions they imposed on others. Support among fellow Conservative lawmakers for him has weakened as some see the leader, renowned for his ability to connect with voters, increasingly as a liability rather than an asset in the election.
Johnson won the backing of 211 of 359 Conservative MPs, more than the simple majority needed to stay in power, but still a significant rebellion by 148 MPs. With no clear candidate to succeed him, most political observers had predicted that he would rise to the challenge.
But the rebellion represents a defining moment for him, and is a sign of deep divisions among Conservatives, less than three years after Johnson led the party to its biggest electoral victory in decades.
Johnson’s margin of victory is smaller than that of her predecessor Theresa May in a similar vote in December 2018. She was forced to resign six months later.
Johnson, a charismatic leader renowned for his ability to connect with voters, has struggled to turn a page following revelations that he and his staff repeatedly threw booze parties that flouted COVID-19 restrictions they imposed on others.
Since taking office in 2019, Johnson has led Britain out of the European Union and through a pandemic, both of which have rocked the UK socially and economically. The vote comes as the Johnson government is under intense pressure to ease the pain of soaring energy and food bills.
Conservative Party official Graham Brady announced Monday that he had received letters calling for a no-confidence vote from at least 54 Conservative lawmakers, enough to trigger the measure under party rules. Hours later, party lawmakers lined up by the dozen in a parliament corridor to cast their votes in a wood-paneled room, handing over their phones as they entered to ensure secrecy.
Johnson’s Downing Street office said the prime minister welcomed the vote as “an opportunity to end months of speculation and allow the government to draw a line and move on”.
Addressing dozens of Conservative lawmakers in a room in the House of Commons before the vote as he tried to bolster support, Johnson vowed: “I will lead you to victory again.”
“Tonight we have an opportunity to end the media focus on the leadership of the Conservative Party… We have an opportunity to stop talking about ourselves and start talking exclusively,” he said.
Discontent that has been building for months erupted after a 10-day parliamentary recess that included a long weekend of celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee. For many, the four-day vacation was a chance to relax, but there was no respite for Johnson, who was booed by some onlookers when he arrived at a service honoring the queen at St. Paul’s Cathedral on Friday.
Brady said some lawmakers who submitted letters of no confidence had asked that they be delayed until after the jubilee weekend, but the threshold was still reached on Sunday.
Johnson’s allies insisted he would remain in office if he wins by even one vote. But previous prime ministers who survived votes of no confidence have emerged severely weakened.
Johnson became prime minister in July 2019 and capped a rollercoaster ride to the top. He held important posts, including Mayor of London and UK Foreign Secretary, but also spent periods on the fringes of politics after self-inflicted mistakes. He continued to bounce back, displaying an uncommon ability to brush off scandal and connect with voters that, for many conservatives, overshadowed questions about his ethics or judgment.
But concerns came to a head after a researcher’s report late last month criticized the rule-breaking culture within the prime minister’s office in a scandal known as “partygate”.
Civil Service researcher Sue Gray described booze parties held by Downing Street staff in 2020 and 2021, when pandemic restrictions prevented UK residents from socializing or even visiting dying relatives.
Gray said the “senior leadership team” must take responsibility for “failures of leadership and judgment.”
Johnson was also fined 50 pounds ($63) by police for attending a party, making him the first prime minister to be sanctioned for breaking the law while in office.
The prime minister said he was “honored” and took “full responsibility” but insisted he would not resign. He urged the British to “move on” and focus on fixing the ailing economy and helping Ukraine fend off a Russian invasion.
But a growing number of Conservatives feel that Johnson is now a liability that will doom them to defeat in the next election, which is due to be held in 2024.
“Today’s decision is to 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 vote for change.”
Lawmaker Jesse Norman, a longtime Johnson supporter, said the prime minister had “presided over a culture of casual law-breaking” and left the government “adrift and distracted.”
Another Tory lawmaker, John Penrose, resigned on Monday as the prime minister’s “anti-corruption champion”, saying Johnson had breached the government’s code of conduct with the behavior revealed by partygate.
But senior ministers offered messages of support for Johnson, including some likely to run in the Conservative leadership race that would be unleashed if he is ousted.
“The Prime Minister has my 100% support 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.
Despite his win, Johnson is likely to face more pressure. The war in Ukraine, a simmering post-Brexit dispute with the EU and runaway inflation weigh on the government.
Polls give the centre-left opposition Labor Party a lead nationally, and the Conservatives could lose special elections later this month for two parliamentary districts, called as incumbent Conservative lawmakers were forced to resign over sex scandals.
Johnson tried to focus on broader issues, promising colleagues he would cut taxes, a popular policy among conservatives, noting that he spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Monday. He has been a vocal supporter of the Ukrainian cause, a stance shared by his potential successors.
Cabinet minister Steve Barclay, a Johnson ally, said toppling the leader now would be “indefensible.”
“The problems we face are not easy to solve,” but Conservatives have the right plan to tackle them, he wrote on the Conservative Home website.
“Interrupting that progress now would be inexcusable for many who cast their vote for us for the first time in the last general election and who want to see our prime minister deliver the changes he promised for their communities.”
Steve Baker, a strong Brexit supporter whose opposition to May helped Johnson seize power, said he was voting for Johnson to leave because the prime minister had 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 in the next few months, I don’t know,” Baker said.