LONDON — So Boris Johnson is limping — for now.
The scandal-hit British Prime Minister scored a hollow victory in Monday night’s internal Conservative Party vote on his leadership, with 41% of his own MPs seeking in vain to force him from power after outrage over multiple cases of COVID lockdown. parties by government personnel.
While Johnson’s allies had spent the day claiming that a victory, even by a single secret ballot, would constitute success – “a [vote] that’s enough, so 60% is good,” a loyal Cabinet minister later insisted – the scale of the rebellion suggests that, in truth, the prime minister is far from safe.
“It’s not great,” a government official said wearily after the vote, which ended with 211 votes to 148 in favor of Johnson. “And they take a lot of honest people with them. »
“He’s got 148 stabs in him,” said another Whitehall official, referring to the 148 votes of no confidence in Johnson’s leadership. “A few honorable ones up front, and a lot more at the back.
“What’s it going to be like during PMQs [prime minister’s questions in parliament] when he has to stand at the dispatch box knowing that 41% of his colleagues want him politically dead? »
Commentators were quick to point out that Johnson’s margin of victory was even less than that enjoyed by former prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May in their own confidence votes, of 1990 and 2018, respectively.
Both women were forced to resign from Downing Street despite their victories – Thatcher in days, May in six months – having been badly hurt by the divisive contests and unable to stop support from continuing to dwindle.
Johnson’s allies, however, have insisted that his legendary ability to defy the normal forces of political gravity could still carry him through the next general election – currently scheduled for May 2024 – and potentially far beyond.
“Let’s see where we are in a year,” said another supportive minister. “This is not the first time people have written off the prime minister. »
“I’m not sure there’s been a government that didn’t see its popularity plummet mid-term,” said a loyal third minister. “And given the appallingly difficult environment for this government, it’s a wonder things aren’t worse. »
The minister added: ‘I think the MPs who voted against Boris were a mix of diehard leftovers, others who think they’ve been overlooked for promotion, and a few who just confuse social media with the real world and were scared. But he won, he now has a clear window of time to turn the tide and bring the party together – and he will.
Safe for now
Existing Conservative Party rules state that a leader cannot face two confidence votes in a 12-month period, meaning Johnson should now be secure in office until June 2023 at the less.
But party officials have made it clear that such rules could be rewritten with enough pressure from Tory MPs – whose mere threat was enough to force May out less than six months after his own confidence vote in 2018 .
The assumption in Westminster is that by contrast, Johnson will do his best to hang on and fight the next election no matter what, despite Monday’s hurtful result. But leading such a divided party in parliament can be difficult.
“From a functional point of view, that 148 [votes against] makes it very difficult just to do your job,” said one of the rebel MPs who voted against Johnson. “I think that’s functionally probably the end. »
The same person was also pessimistic about the prime minister’s chances of winning the next election. “Part of the problem is that people think Boris has been scolded,” the backbench MP said. “And the rumbling process will only get worse. »
Other significant obstacles loom on the horizon. Johnson faces two tough by-elections later this month, as well as a new Partygate inquiry by MPs from all parties and the wider impact of cost of living pressure on the popularity of the government.
PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON’S APPROVAL RATING
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Insiders fear the Tory divisions that opened up so dramatically on Monday – with former and current Cabinet Ministers Jeremy Hunt and Nadine Dorries slugging on twitter – are likely to get worse as the pressures mount.
“It’s as if a Syrian-style civil war is going to set in and stay with us for a long time,” a senior party official said. “The highlight is that the electorate walks into the voting booth absolutely sick of us. »
The worst possible outcome?
For his part, Johnson insisted on Monday that he could keep his team divided and would now focus on governance.
In a TV clip after the result was announced, Johnson said the vote was ‘decisive’ and argued it would allow his government to ‘move forward and focus on the things that I think matter. really for the people.
Allies in government have urged Tory MPs to be careful and support the prime minister. “He is a winner, so now that he has won this vote MPs should rally around him and focus on the job at hand – leading the fight against Labour,” said one official.
Downing Street is already planning a response aimed at reasserting Johnson’s control of the party, with a big housing speech due later this week and persistent rumors of a government reshuffle to punish those suspected of disloyalty.
But many within his party remain unconvinced after Monday’s explosive result.
“For the first time,” declared a government adviser, “the Prime Minister will be able to put his classical education to good use, and ruminate on the great victory of Pyrrhus of Epirus and his quip: ‘If we are victorious in a battle moreover with Boris, we will be completely ruined.
Another rebel backbencher put it more succinctly: “This is probably the worst possible outcome for the Conservative Party.