LONDON — Boris Johnson survived a deadly challenge to his leadership after rebel Tory MPs failed to oust him in a dramatic internal vote on Monday night.
Britain’s prime minister, facing growing rebellion over the so-called Partygate scandal, won a vote of confidence from his party’s MPs by 211 votes to 148 – a reasonable margin, although far narrower than his allies would expect. had hoped.
“It’s a game-breaking result,” Johnson insisted afterwards. “What that means is that as government we can move on and focus on the things that I think really matter. »
Rebel Tory MPs were encouraged by the result, however, pointing out that the Prime Minister now only retains the confidence of 59% of his parliamentary party.
The split in Johnson’s favor was even worse than the result former Prime Minister Theresa May achieved in 2018, when deep divisions over her approach to Brexit led to her own vote of confidence among her MPs. On that occasion, nearly two-thirds of Tory MPs – 63% – voted to keep May in power, but she was still forced to resign less than six months later.
In theory, under existing Conservative Party rules, Johnson cannot face another leadership challenge for another 12 months. But in practice he remains under heavy pressure, with Tory backbench leader Graham Brady confirming that “it is possible the rules will be changed” if there is enough desire among Tory MPs.
Even so, a senior party official had already indicated ahead of the vote that the prime minister would remain in office if the outcome were to come up short of an outright defeat.
“A vote is a victory,” the senior Conservative official told reporters. “At the end of the day, a team returns victorious. »
The vote was called early Monday morning after Brady, who chairs the so-called 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, confirmed he had received letters of no confidence from at least 15 per cent of MPs in Johnson – the threshold required to trigger a formal vote.
Johnson’s popularity declined significantly after his premiership was engulfed by the Partygate scandal, with revelations about several illegal parties organized by government staff in Downing Street during the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.
Johnson himself was fined by British police for attending such a rally, and his leadership was the subject of a highly critical report into the scandal last month by senior civil servant Sue Gray.
Letters of no-confidence to the prime minister from Tory MPs had piled up as a succession of opinion polls showed Johnson was now deeply unpopular across the country.
“Tory MPs have made their choice tonight,” Labor leader Keir Starmer said after the vote. “They ignored the British public and linked their party to Boris Johnson and everything he stands for. »
The opposition leader’s rhetoric was echoed by some of the Tory rebels, who made the rounds after the late-night vote. Tory MP Roger Gale told Sky News an ‘honorary prime minister’ would look at his declining support and ‘consider his position’.
“But I don’t think he will,” added Gale, a persistent critic of Johnson.
Conservative Civil War
In a clear sign of the divisions now dividing the Conservative Party, a steady stream of ministers loyal to the PM have fought just as hard to frame the outcome as a positive for Johnson.
Welsh secretary Simon Hart told the BBC that while Johnson had “a lot to prove” the result was “pretty decisive”. Education Minister Michelle Donelan added that “now is not the time to be navel-gazing”.
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi went even further, saying “Ukrainian President Zelenskyy will be banging in the air because he knows his great ally Boris Johnson will be Prime Minister tomorrow morning”.
Earlier in the day, the senior Tories had descended into open warfare as they contested the position ahead of the vote. Johnson’s former leadership rival Jeremy Hunt – the bookmakers’ favorite to succeed him – was the first to emerge from the blocks with an apparent leadership offer.
“Today’s decision is change or lose”, Hunt wrote in a series of critical tweets. “I will vote for change. Hunt immediately faced scathing criticism from Nadine Dorries, a cabinet minister and close Johnson ally, who offensive Hunt’s own record in government for six years as UK Health Secretary.
Johnson also faced the resignation of his anti-corruption czar, John Penrose, who said it was “clear” that the prime minister had breached the written code that governs ministerial conduct. John Lamont – a parliamentary aide to Foreign Secretary Liz Truss – joined Penrose in resign from government vote against Johnson.
On Monday night, Johnson’s party leader in Scotland also turned on the Prime Minister – again.
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross confirmed ahead of the poll that he too would vote to oust Johnson, coming full circle in a comical sequence of events that saw Ross initially call for Johnson’s resignation in January, reverse that call in March because of the war in Ukraine, and then declaring in May that the Prime Minister should in fact resign – but only when the war is over.
Eleni Courea contributed reporting. This article has been updated.