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 has been mired in scandal following an official investigation into a series of illegal parties at his Downing Street office, which took place during nationwide COVID-19 lockdowns.
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 University in London.
After receiving a fine in April from the London Metropolitan police for attending one of the illegal gatherings in June 2020, Johnson became the first sitting British Prime Minister to be found to have broken the law while in office. Political convention in the U.K. had long been that any breaches to the ministerial code require resignation, before Johnson amended the code ahead of the official investigation.
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.
Declining support for the Conservative Party
Although the Conservatives command a large majority in parliament, the partygate crisis has angered the British public, prompting fears that voters will punish the party during the next general election in 2024.
There is also growing public dissatisfaction over the worst cost-of-living crisis in decades, post-Brexit trade disagreements in Northern Ireland, and an economy still recovering 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 Eaton, a senior editor at the New Statesman, following the no-confidence vote.
Polls predict that the Labour Party is set to win back one of the seats, Wakefield, in the north of England after losing it to the Conservatives in the 2019 general election. 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.
The other seat up for grabs, Tiverton and Honiton, is a safer bet for the Conservatives, who have a large majority there. But the centrist Liberal Democrat party is hoping to repeat surprise victories that it achieved in previous by-elections in 2021.
What happens next for Johnson?
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. The outcome of an independent investigation into whether Johnson misled Parliament over the lockdown parties is expected in the coming weeks. 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.
If Johnson is found to have deliberately misled Parliament, he will be expected to resign. This process is not straightforward, however, as under the ministerial code it requires proof that Johnson “knowingly” deceived lawmakers. The Prime Minister claims that under his interpretation of the COVID-19 rules, the gatherings were necessary 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.”
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.
However, the issue of trustworthiness has not been fatal for Johnson at the ballot box in the past. Around half of British voters said they believed he was untrustworthy when he rode to victory 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.”
Ultimately, the question is how long until the magic wears off. Bale suspects that, for now, Johnson may well convince his Conservative skeptics that he can charm his way back to public 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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