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Surviving vote, Johnson faces bleak outlook


Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain last month.

By Mark Landler and Stephen Castle


Prime Minister Boris Johnson survived a tense vote of no-confidence earlier this week, fending off a mutiny that nevertheless leaves him reeling and presages a volatile period in British politics as he fights to stay in power and lead a divided Conservative Party.


The vote, 211-148, fell short of the majority of Tory lawmakers needed to oust Johnson. But it laid bare how badly his support has eroded since last year, when a scandal erupted over revelations that he and his senior aides threw parties at No. 10 Downing St. that violated the government’s lockdown rules. More than 40% of Conservative lawmakers voted against him in an unexpectedly large rebellion.


Johnson vowed to stay on, declaring that the victory should put an end to months of speculation about his future. “It’s a convincing result, a decisive result,” the prime minister said from Downing Street after the results of the secret ballot were announced.


“As a government,” Johnson added, “we can focus and move on to the stuff that really matters to people.”


History shows, however, that Conservative prime ministers who have been subjected to such a vote — even if they win it — are usually drummed out of office, if not immediately then within a few months.


Johnson won a smaller share of his party’s support Monday than either his predecessor, Theresa May, did in 2018, or Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher did in 1990, when they survived no-confidence votes. May was forced out six months later. Thatcher lasted only a few days.


And yet, Johnson is a singular figure in British politics, gleefully defying convention and often seeming immune to the rules of political gravity. With a comfortable majority in Parliament, his party is in no danger of losing power. He could opt to ride out the storm, claiming, as he did Monday evening, that he got a larger mandate than when he was first elected leader of the party in July 2019.


Still, for a politician who led the Conservatives to a landslide election victory in 2019 with the promise to “get Brexit done,” it was a bruising fall from grace — one that could expose him to a political insurgency in his party, an empowered opposition, and further electoral setbacks that weaken his credibility.


In 2 1/2 years, Johnson has gone from Britain’s most reliable vote-getter — a celebrity politician who redrew the country’s political map — to a scandal-scarred figure whose job has been in peril since the first reports of illicit lockdown parties emerged in November.


As Britons paid tribute to Queen Elizabeth’s 70-year reign last week, they were turning against the chaotic tenure of their prime minister. On Friday, Johnson was booed by the crowd at St. Paul’s Cathedral when he and his wife, Carrie, attended a thanksgiving service for the queen.


That moment may have crystallized the loss of public support for Johnson, an ethically flexible journalist-turned-politician whose peccadilloes were forgiven more often than not by a public he proved adept at charming.


Still, for now, Johnson remains in power, and under the party’s current rules, he cannot face another no-confidence vote for a year. The odds of removing him will depend on several wild cards.


Will his Cabinet turn against him, as Thatcher’s did after the vote in 1990, precipitating her swift resignation? Will the party threaten to change the rules and hold a second no-confidence vote, as it suggested it might with May, persuading her to negotiate her exit? Will Johnson gamble by calling an early general election, seeking a mandate from the public that he could not get from his party?


Johnson sought to deflect questions about a new election Monday night, saying only, “I’m certainly not interested in snap elections.”


In 1995, Prime Minister John Major triggered, and won, a leadership contest in the Conservative Party, only to go down to a crushing defeat to Tony Blair and the Labour Party two years later. Given Britain’s economic woes and the Conservative Party’s weakness in the polls, some Conservatives fear a similar outcome this time.


Opposition leaders seized on the result to paint Conservative lawmakers as having endorsed the leadership of a lawbreaking prime minister.


“Conservative MP’s made their choice tonight,” said the leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer. “They have ignored the wishes of the British public.” Voters, he said, are “fed up — fed up — with a prime minister who promises big but never delivers.”


The result leaves Conservatives restive and divided, after a tense day in which senior members of the party sparred openly on social media. Some lawmakers argued that his position had become untenable.


Roger Gale, a Conservative lawmaker, expressed surprise at the size of the rebellion. “I think the prime minister has to go back to Downing Street tonight and consider very carefully where he goes from here,” Gale said to the BBC.


But one of Johnson’s defenders, James Cleverly, a minister in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, said, “he’s won it comfortably and now we need to get on with the job.” He said of Johnson’s electoral track record, “There’s no other candidate that is going to get anything like that level of support.”


Johnson was greeted warmly when he addressed Conservatives earlier in the afternoon, with some lawmakers pounding their desks in gestures of support, according to those in attendance. But he also got challenging questions, and as the members drifted out of the committee room afterward, it was clear he had not convinced all those who opposed him to call off their mutiny.


“I told the prime minister that if he broke the law he would have to go,” said Steve Baker, an influential pro-Brexit lawmaker who has called on Johnson to step down. “He’s clearly broken the law, he’s clearly acquiesced in the law being broken, so I stick to my word that I gave on the record that he should go.”


Noting that he had helped Johnson become prime minister, Baker described it as an “awful moment.”

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