The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The question is no longer whether Boris Johnson goes, but when

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures as he delivers his keynote speech on the final day of the annual Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, England, on Oct. 6, 2021. (Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images)
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Politicians would normally be delighted with a 59 to 41 percent victory. But Boris Johnson’s survival of a no-confidence vote by that margin on Monday is devastating. The question is no longer whether he goes, but when.

There is no mistaking that this is a dismal result for the British prime minister. Theresa May won the challenge against her in late 2018 by a 63 to 37 percent vote, but was forced to resign within months as it became clear she was dragging the Conservative Party toward defeat. Margaret Thatcher won her last leadership challenge with only 54 percent of the party. The great lady was not for turning, but she stepped down within a day of that rebuke.

Johnson is not expected to resign so quickly, but others can now force his hand. Losing 148 of his own party’s members in a secret ballot, as Johnson just did, shows the anger among his peers is deep and unlikely to fade. Conservative Home’s snap poll of Tory Party members on Monday morning found 55 percent wanted the prime minister booted from office. Public polls find that large majorities of Britons, including a large number of Conservative voters, agree.

The end could come relatively quickly if cabinet members act. Just as every senator is said to see a president in the mirror each morning, one doesn’t climb the greasy pole to the cabinet without dreaming of gaining the top job. The fast mover who decides it is worth the risk of being the straw that broke Johnson’s back could make a show of resigning within the fortnight. That person could reasonably claim that they would have it otherwise, but that the only way to avoid a “blue-on-blue civil war” is to replace the leader who caused it. That Tory might shed some crocodile tears, but such is politics.

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Johnson’s expected cabinet reshuffle could easily spark a rapid assault. Anyone who accepts a job in a renewed cabinet knows the rebellion would continue without them. That gives someone currently outside the cabinet a chance to become the tribune for change — and no ambitious pol wants to have their march stolen by timidity. Why go down with a sinking ship when jumping first could let you captain the entire fleet?

Two upcoming by-elections could also push Johnson out even if he survives the next few days. In 2019, the Conservatives took Wakefield, a longtime working-class Labour seat. Polls now show them losing it in the June 23 election by as many as 23 points. Tories are also worried they might lose a traditionally Conservative seat in southern England, Tiverton and Honiton, on the same day. Losing both would give credence to a recent YouGov analysis that found the Conservatives would lose 85 out of 88 battleground seats, including Johnson’s own, if a general election were held today. Even unambitious politicians do not want to be turfed out of office.

Johnson really has no one to blame but himself for his predicament. He tried to weasel his way out of the so-called Partygate scandal by obfuscation and misdirection rather than simply admitting fault and asking for forgiveness. He recklessly knifed loyal longtime backers such as the respected historian and MP Jesse Norman, whose letter to Johnson explaining why he was voting against him after decades of support reverberated throughout Westminster. Johnson, neither loyal nor steady, has thrown away what he had built.

The Conservative Party conserves one thing above all else: its own power. It now sees that bleeding away and will act quickly to stanch the wound even if it is largely self-inflicted. It will recall that sticking with John Major in 1995, when polls predicted catastrophe, led to its greatest wipeout in nearly a century in the 1997 New Labour revolution, followed by 13 long years wandering the wilderness. Tories will not want to repeat that experience.

There is no obvious front-runner to succeed Johnson, which is one reason some chose to back him on Monday. But after this debacle, many will start to call themselves to challenge for leadership. Others will follow suit rather than miss the tide that “taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” We will soon see who has the cunning, charisma and skill to reunite a badly fractured and despondent party.

Shed a tear for Johnson, but not more. He served his party and his country well, leading Conservatives to victory and Britain to Brexit. Party and country now need someone new, and it will get that person. The sooner the better.