Prime Minister Boris Johnson narrowly turned back an internal Conservative party revolt on Monday, ensuring the colorful British leader will stay in his post for at least another year.
The no-confidence measure forced by dissidents within Mr. Johnson‘s ruling party reflected continuing anger over the fallout from “Partygate,” where Mr. Johnson and his aides admitted to flouting COVID-19 lockdown rules with office gatherings and birthday parties, and fears that Mr. Johnson‘s ethical woes will cost the party at the polls as the opposition Labor Party surges.
The 211-148 vote in Mr. Johnson‘s favor among Tory MPs was uncomfortably close. Some 40% of the 359 votes cast went against the prime minister and some of Mr. Johnson‘s opponents were already saying his position as head of the majority will soon be untenable.
Still, Mr. Johnson was able to count on enough backbench support to secure what he called a “convincing” win with an argument that it was no time to change leaders when the country faces economic strains and the diplomacy to end the war in Ukraine drags on. He made a personal closed-door appeal to skeptical Tory backbenchers before the Monday evening secret ballot, reportedly stressing his record in leading the Conservatives to a massive majority in a 2019 general election.
“What it means is that as a government we can move on and focus on stuff that I think really matters to people,” he said after the vote.
A number of top Johnson aides and potential Cabinet rivals also came out publicly in support of the prime minister. But there was genuine drama during the day over whether Mr. Johnson‘s appeals for party unity would prevail in the face of rising anger at his personal behavior.
Former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, mentioned as a possible replacement had Mr. Johnson lost the vote, argued that Mr. Johnson had to resign in the face of polls that showed his own unpopularity was dragging down the party, even if the timing was not ideal.
“Having been trusted with power, Conservative MPs know in our hearts we are not giving the British people the leadership they deserve,” he said in a statement on Twitter. ” … And because we are no longer trusted by the electorate, who know this too, we are set to lose the next general election.
And there were a number of ominous signs for Mr. Johnson, who leads a party with a history of throwing out its leaders from within, from Margaret Thatcher in 1991 to Theresa May — Mr. Johnson‘s predecessor — just three years ago. Ms. May in fact won a confidence vote of her own within the party by a larger margin than Mr. Johnson did Monday; six months later, she was out of the job and Mr. Johnson was moving into 10 Downing Street.
Mr. Johnson said before the internal party vote that he welcomed the open challenge, after a long period of private grumbling from some Conservatives over his leadership.
“Partygate,” as the British press has dubbed the incident and its fallout, has been a particular drain, with Mr. Johnson acknowledging he and his staff held alcohol-fueled staff gatherings and parties at a time when the rest of the country was virtually shut down over COVID-19 lockdown rules in 2020.
“Tonight is a chance to end months of speculation and allow the government to draw a line and move on, delivering on the people’s priorities,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement Monday before the vote.
The ballot was secret but many Johnson supporters and critics made statements during the day about their decision. Some argue just getting the support to hold the vote weakens Mr. Johnson‘s standing.
David Davis, a onetime secretary on Brexit issues in Mr. Johnson’s Cabinet who supported ousting his former boss, told British television Mr. Johnson could win the battle Monday but lose the war politically.
“I think Boris will win technically, but I think it will be a psychological defeat, in the sense of a very large number of people are voting against, probably more than are expected,” Mr. Davis said. “I suspect quite a lot of ministers who are obviously publicly saying they’re voting one way will vote the other.”
The opposition Labor Party, which has been leading in recent national opinion polls as Mr. Johnson‘s political woes have mounted, wasted no time seeking to capitalize on the close vote that keeps Mr. Johnson in office.
Labor Party leader Keir Starmer posted an appeal to voters on Twitter just minutes after the results were made public: “The choice is clearer than ever before: Divided Tories propping up Boris Johnson with no plan to tackle the issues you are facing. Or a united Labor Party with a plan to fix the cost of living crisis and restore trust in politics. Labor will get Britain back on track.”