How can the Tories dump a leader who has been as successful at winning elections and riding out controversy as Boris Johnson? And yet how can they stick with one whose character has become a liability, whom the public distrusts and whom many see as a threat to the integrity of governing institutions?
The answer to both questions seems to be, they don’t know. Johnson’s party still can’t decide if it’s better off with him or without him. The result of that indecision is likely to be an increasingly fractious governing party and more polarized political climate.
It’s never a good sign for a prime minister to face a confidence vote. But like rain in a British summer, Monday’s vote had the feeling of inevitability about it. It was triggered by at least 15% of Johnson’s parliamentary colleagues submitting letters of no-confidence to the 1922 Committee of backbench MPs.
Johnson needed the backing of 180 Tory MPs to stay on as party leader, and he got it. But by winning only 211 of his MPs — 59% support, less than the 63% that Theresa May received, six months before she was forced out — he is walking wounded.
Johnson has been known for his Houdini-like ability to wriggle out of impossible binds. Still, the obstacles this time are different. If you take out all those MPs who are on the government payroll in one way or another, that leaves a razor thin voting majority.
A win is a win, Johnson’s supporters have said. And he has made clear he wanted the vote to draw a line under matters. That’s wishful thinking.
Three parliamentary apologies, a number of policy U-turns, emergency spending plans and the Sue Gray report into lockdown rule-breaking all failed to resolve the underlying tension between Tories who see him as a vote-winner and those who view him as a liability. Monday’s vote doesn’t alleviate that pressure.
The Tories are expected to lose two by-elections later this month. While Johnson’s majority is large enough that he can afford the hit and Johnson’s defenders note that governments often take a beating in mid-term votes, a number of recent local election losses makes a worrying trend and will only add to calls for his resignation.
Nor is Partygate over. Johnson faces the Parliamentary privileges committee investigation into whether he broke the ministerial code in his handling of allegations of gathering during lockdown. That is normally a resigning offense, but nobody expects a prime minister who has made a trademark of defying convention to abide by it.
While winning the confidence vote doesn’t get Johnson off the hook, it does put the ball in his court. In the past, when faced with internal opposition, Johnson’s go-to strategy has been to purge disbelievers and tack hard to the right. We’re now more likely to see both.
The prime minister successfully rid his party of Brexit opponents after winning the 2019 election, creating a sense of internal unity for a time. We can expect him to reward loyalists and sideline dissenters again. The highly personal attack on Monday by Johnson’s Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Nadine Dorries, on former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt (a potential leadership contender) offered a hint of how nasty this could get.
But unlike during the Brexit wars, the opposition this time does not come from one particular wing of the party. It’s too simplistic to denounce those who challenge Johnson as either self-serving or remain-voters who hold a grudge over Brexit. Conservative MP Jesse Norman’s letter to Johnson cooly dismantling both his policies and his character makes that clear. Some MPs feel he’s demeaned his office, others that he is not a true conservative and others that he simply cannot win another general election.
The only thing that might quell internal party debate is a revival in the polls. But although public opinion can be fickle, it’s hard to overstate the degree of hostility toward Johnson throughout the country. A nationally representative survey by JL Partners showed that the word voters most associated with the prime minister is “liar.”
That antipathy was palpable even during a feel-good four-day celebration of the Queen’s jubilee. The boos heard as Johnson and his wife mounted the steps to St. Paul’s cathedral for the Thanksgiving service at the start of the weekend certainly seemed to capture the mood. And it was lost on no one that the reading chosen for Johnson by the Palace (like a schoolboy in the naughty corner) at that service was Philippians 4:8: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable” Johnson read, “Think about these things.” Twice during an uplifting musical soiree Saturday, jokes were made at the PM’s expense as millions watched.
Politicians who lose public trust find it near impossible to win it back. To do that, Johnson would need a stunning policy victory or economic turnaround.
That is why another likely consequence of the challenge to his leadership is a rush to advance policies he thinks will either restore voter confidence in his leadership or redirect their ire. That will almost certainly mean more of the “red meat” announcements to appease Tory voters that we’ve seen recently — sending refugees to Rwanda, banning noisy protests or seeking to remake the media, the judiciary or the civil service, institutions Johnson sees as hostile. It is also likely to mean Johnson persists with his plans to override the Northern Ireland protocol — a move which Norman described as “economically very damaging, politically foolhardy and almost certainly illegal.”
We can also expect Johnson to tack rightward on economic policy. He has already signaled he will announce tax cuts, programs to facilitate home ownership and policies to boost economic growth. That’s a more positive direction, but the question will be whether he can square that with his promise to rebalance the British economy, offering more opportunity and development in poorer areas, and to improve performance in a crisis-ridden National Health Service. Both tasks require far more spending than the substantial commitments already made.
There is no guarantee that just because Johnson survived Monday night’s vote, his leadership will be safe from challenge until the next general election, when voters get their say. Both Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May survived no-confidence votes only to be dumped not long after. The party’s current rules prohibit a new leadership challenge for 12 months, but the party can change those rules if it chooses.
Unlike the Tory divisions over Brexit, the vote Monday was not fundamentally about policy so much as about the personality and competence of the prime minister. But underneath that is a profound policy-based question: What is the Tory vision for the country?
Johnson lives to fight another day, but his party is stuck with the same dilemma it started with.
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Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering health care and British politics. Previously, she was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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