Boris Johnson has survived a vote of confidence held by his own party. Conservative MPs voted Monday in a secret ballot by 211 to 148 to allow Johnson to remain party leader – and, by extension, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
The government put a brave face on the result, with Johnson describing it as “convincing” and “decisive.”
“I think this is a very good result for politics and for the country,” he said in an interview given shortly after the vote.
But standing in the Houses of Parliament, it was impossible to ignore the sick look on faces of loyalist MPs clearing the room within two minutes of the announcement.
The result was far narrower than even the most pessimistic Johnson allies feared. Ahead of the vote, a margin of 80 was considered by many to be a worst-case-scenario. Now, Johnson supporters are scrambling to spin these results as a victory or deciding what their next move is, as his premiership looks shakier than in any time since he took office.
Before the vote, Johnson had been informed by Graham Brady, Chairman of the 1922 Committee of MPs, that 54 no-confidence letters – the threshold required to trigger a vote – had been submitted on Sunday afternoon.
It came after a tense weekend for the PM, after he’d been loudly booed in public at an event celebrating the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and his personal poll ratings slipped further in the wake of the “Partygate” scandal.
Though the vote may impact his legacy, Johnson never really expected to lose. Not only did rebels need a huge number – 180 – MPs to vote against Johnson, there was no obvious alternative candidate to replace him.
When the PM addressed backbenchers ahead of the vote in Parliament, he was met with raucous applause and table banging. Supporters leaving the room said that Johnson was in a serious mood, talking about policy and how to take the country forward, rather than cracking jokes. Some detractors also said he’d struck a serious tone at the meeting, and that they expected Johnson to win.
Johnson and his allies now hope that the Conservative party and the rest of the country will be able to move on from the Partygate scandal, in which Johnson was found to be the first British Prime Minister to have broken the law while in office.
However, his political future is far from safe. Whatever allies in his party want, Johnson’s approval ratings in the country continue to sink – as do the polls for his party as a whole.
The Conservative party has for months had a whiff of a party in government but also in decline. For months, Johnson and his government has been caught up in scandals that range from protecting an MP who had breached lobbying rules to another MP being found guilty of sexually abusing a 15-year-old boy.
Its handling of the Partygate scandal has been at times shambolic and incoherent. And discipline among Conservative MPs – including those on the government payroll – is poor, with briefings appearing in media daily and his authority undermined frequently.
What’s next for Johnson?
Conventionally, winning a confidence vote means that a Conservative leader is immune from such a challenge for another 12 months.
However, rumors are already circling that MPs, furious that the vote happened too soon in their eyes, are looking at ways the rules could be re-written.
As Johnson’s popularity continues to tank, he’s taking the party’s poll numbers with him.
This summer, Conservatives could potentially lose two parliamentary seats at by-elections to be held on June 23. If they do, it will be hard for even Johnson’s most vocal supporters to claim that the Prime Minister’s unpopularity had nothing to do with it. And at that point, other MPs might start looking at their own seats and wonder if they will be able to hold them at the next general election, currently scheduled for 2024.
So while Johnson desperately wants to hang onto his job, a large number his MPs still see this summer as the best chance to remove him from power and install a fresh leader.
To avoid all of this, Johnson will need to turn around his and his party’s popularity. This is currently difficult for a number of reasons. The UK is going through the worst cost-of-living crisis it has experienced in decades. Given Conservatives have been in power since 2010, it’s hard for them to argue that they still hold the solution.
Even allies admit in private that some of Johnson’s magic has gone. In recent weeks, numerous pro-Johnson MPs have told CNN that they feel his charisma is wearing off, and that the PM increasingly appears tired and out of ideas. They wonder how long they can let a leader so undermined, in their eyes, limp on at the party’s expense.
For now, Boris Johnson can breathe a temporary sigh of relief. But winning this confidence vote only affords him a little breathing room.