LONDON — So Boris Johnson limps on — for now.
The scandal-hit British prime minister chalked up a hollow-looking victory in Monday night’s internal Conservative Party vote on his leadership, with a whopping 41 percent of his own MPs seeking in vain to force him from power after outrage over multiple COVID lockdown-breaking parties by government staff.
While Johnson’s allies had spent the day claiming that victory by even a single vote in the secret ballot would constitute success — “one [vote] is enough, so 60 percent is fine,” one loyal Cabinet minister insisted afterward — the scale of the rebellion suggests that in truth, the prime minister is far from safe.
“It’s not great,” one government official said wearily after the vote, which ended 211 to 148 in favor of Johnson. “And they are taking a lot of decent people down with them.”
“He’s got 148 stab wounds in him,” said another Whitehall official, referring to the 148 votes of no confidence in Johnson’s leadership. “A few honorable ones in the front, and an awful lot more in 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 percent of his colleagues want him politically dead?”
Commentators were quick to point out that the margin of Johnson’s victory was lower even 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 within days, May inside six months — having been badly wounded by the divisive contests and unable to prevent support further ebbing away.
Allies of Johnson, however, insisted his legendary ability to defy the normal forces of political gravity can still pull him through to the next general election — currently scheduled for May 2024 — and potentially far beyond.
“Let’s see where we are in a year,” another supportive Cabinet minister said. “It’s not the first time people have written off the PM.”
“I’m not sure there has been a government that hasn’t seen its popularity slump midway through,” a third loyal minister said. “And given the appallingly difficult backdrop for this government, it is a miracle things aren’t worse.”
The minister added: “I think the MPs who voted against Boris were a mixture of diehard Remainers, others who think they have been overlooked for promotion, and a few who simply mistake social media for the real world and were spooked. But he won, he now has a clear period of time to turn things around and pull the party together — and he will.”
Safe for the moment
Existing Conservative Party rules say a leader cannot face two confidence ballots within any 12-month period, meaning Johnson ought now to be secure in his position until at least June 2023.
But party officials have made clear that such rules could be rewritten with enough pressure from Tory MPs — the mere threat of which was enough to force May to stand down less than six months after her own confidence vote in 2018.
The assumption in Westminster is that by contrast, Johnson will do his best to cling on and fight the next election come what may, despite Monday’s wounding result. But leading such a divided party in parliament may prove difficult.
“As a functional matter, 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 it’s functionally probably the end.”
The same person was downbeat too about the PM’s chances of winning the next election. “Part of the problem is that people think Boris has been rumbled,” the backbencher said. “And the rumbling process is only likely to get worse.”
Further significant hurdles are looming on the horizon. Johnson faces two difficult by-elections later this month, as well as a further Partygate inquiry by cross-party MPs and the broader impact of the cost of living squeeze upon the government’s popularity.
Insiders fear the Tory divisions which opened up so dramatically on Monday — with former and current Cabinet ministers Jeremy Hunt and Nadine Dorries slugging it out on Twitter — are likely to worsen as the pressures mount.
“It feels as though a Syrian-style civil war will take hold, and stay with us for a long time,” one senior party activist said. “Culminating in the electorate walking into the voting booth absolutely sick of us.”
Worst result possible?
For his part, Johnson insisted Monday he could hold his divided team together and will now focus on governing.
In a TV clip after the result was announced, Johnson said the vote was “decisive” and argued it would allow his government to “move on and focus on the stuff that I think really matters to people.”
Allies inside the government urged Tory MPs to take heed and get behind the PM. “He’s a winner, so now he’s won this vote, MPs should rally round him and focus on the task in hand — taking the fight to Labour,” one official said.
Downing Street is already planning a fightback designed to reassert Johnson’s control over the party, with a big speech on housing planned for later this week and persistent rumors of a government reshuffle to punish those suspected of disloyalty.
But plenty within his party remain unconvinced following Monday’s explosive result.
“For the first time,” one government adviser said, “the PM will be able to use his classical education to good effect, and ruminate on Pyrrhus of Epirus’ great victory and quip: ‘If we are victorious in one more battle with Boris, we shall be utterly ruined.’”
Another rebel backbencher put it more succinctly: “It’s probably the worst result possible for the Conservative Party.”