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Boris Johnson Survives in the Face of Tory Rebellion

Analyses - 10 June 2022

Boris Johnson will remain leader of the Conservative party and British Prime Minister after narrowly surviving a vote of confidence on Sunday, April 5, 2022. He must now deliver if he wants to lead the party into the next general election, argues Georgina Wright, Senior Fellow and Director of Institut Montaigne's Europe Program.

Boris Johnson is safe - at least for now. On Sunday, June 5, 2022, he narrowly survived a vote of confidence thanks to the backing of 211 Conservative MPs. Under current rules, his MPs will not be able to challenge him for at least one year.

On the one hand, his supporters are right to be nervous. 41% of his MPs voted against him and his party seems more divided than ever. Both Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May did better in no-confidence votes than Johnson, yet both left office within days and months, respectively, of their victories.

On the other, it is still too early to talk of inevitable downfall. The Prime Minister is tenacious and it will take more than a vote of confidence to shake him. But he will need to deliver - and fast - if he is to command the support of his MPs and lead the party into the next general election, in 2025 at the latest.

A series of scandals have hurt Boris Johnson

Johnson’s premiership has been rocked by a never-ending cycle of scandals. While the rest of the country was in lockdown, his staff organized several illegal parties under his watch. Worst still, pictures show the Prime Minister present at least two of those parties.

Johnson has the lowest approval ratings of anyone in the entire government.

There has been a string of high-level resignations including those of Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former Chief Adviser (now one of his fiercest critics) and his trusted lead Brexit negotiator, David Frost. Both have criticized the direction of Johnson’s government and his style of leadership. 

According to a poll published by Conservative Home, a British right-wing blog that supports the Conservative Party, Johnson has the lowest approval ratings of anyone in the entire government. It’s clear that a vote of confidence was only a matter of time.

Boris Johnson could hold onto power for longer than people think

The reality is that it’s not easy to remove a British Prime Minister from office. Johnson could choose to resign (as Theresa May did on May 24, 2019) though it’s clear Johnson has no intention of doing so, regardless of how unpopular he is. The opposition Labour Party could try to table a motion of no confidence in the government. Yet it is difficult to see how they would get the numbers they need to pass the motion given the government’s 80-seat majority in the House of Commons. 

Tory MPs could schedule another vote of confidence in the prime minister but they would have to wait. The rules of the 1922 Committee, the Conservative Party’s parliamentary group in the House of Commons, make clear that a Tory party leader cannot be challenged for at least 12 months after he has won a confidence vote (though the 1922 Committee could change these rules if it wanted). That gives him one year to try and persuade those who are unhappy with his leadership to support him. Already there are reports that the Prime Minister is planning a reshuffle as a way of thanking his supporters, and possibly swaying those who are ambivalent about his performance. 

Already there are reports that the Prime Minister is planning a reshuffle as a way of thanking his supporters, and possibly swaying those who are ambivalent about his performance. 

The pressure is on for the Prime Minister to deliver

As I wrote in an article for Institut Montaigne of May 2021, Johnson’s greatest challenge is to deliver on his campaign promises. So far, his track record is mixed. Brexit is far from done and UK-EU relations will worsen if, as many are reporting, he introduces new legislation next week to unilaterally override parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol. He needs to set clear goals and priorities to reduce regional inequality as well as his much-touted "levelling up" agenda. He must take action to address the spiralling cost-of-living crisis. He should make sure those in senior positions in the Prime Minister’s office are held to account over the illegal lockdown parties.

The Prime Minister is on shaky ground. His MPs have granted him a second chance though many, I suspect, are already looking beyond his leadership. Yet, he needs their support - and their votes - if he wants to get legislation through the UK Parliament. Above all, he needs to regain the trust of the British electorate. Two key by-elections on June 23 of this year will be a test of whether he can still appeal to voters. Britons are tired of pledges; they want to see results. With the jubilee celebrations now over, the pressure is on.


Copyright: Leon Neal / POOL / AFP


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