How Boris Johnson went from landslide victory to no-confidence vote

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his partner, Carrie Symonds, wave from the steps of number 10 Downing Street in London on Dec. 13, 2019. (Matt Dunham/AP)

The sudden rise of Boris Johnson once baffled political analysts. But the quick reversal of his political fortune could be even more jaw-dropping.

Dismissed as the clown prince of British politics for decades, Johnson secured an enormous parliamentary majority for his Conservative Party after calling an early general election in December 2019.

It looked to be a dramatic realignment of British politics as the right-wing Tory government took seats that historically went to the left-wing Labour.

Who would replace Boris Johnson? Here are some of the contenders.

Less than three years later, Johnson faced a vote of no confidence from his own party, with former allies saying his behavior in several scandals “insults the electorate.” Though he survived the vote of no confidence, 148 out of 359 Conservative MPs voted against him.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson survived a cliffhanger vote of no confidence by his fellow Conservative Party lawmakers on June 6. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)

A string of rowdy, lockdown-breaking parties at Downing Street during the coronavirus pandemic served as the chief problem for Johnson, long known as a raconteur and rabble-rouser.

How the vote of

no confidence works

Tories needed 54 letters (15% of their parliamentary group) to challenge Johnson.

Vote of no confidence

Johnson wins the vote

If Johnson gets a simple majority of members of parliament — 180 votes — he can stay as prime minister. Current rules say he cannot be challenged again for a year, though those rules can be changed.

Johnson loses the vote

He can stay as a caretaker for six weeks until a new leader is decided upon.

A very close vote, however, could force him to resign.

Only one candidate

Two candidates

The grass-roots Conservative Party membership decides the new Prime Minister.

Three or more candidates

Conservative lawmakers vote, eliminating the least voted until only two are left.

New Prime Minister

CHIQUI ESTEBAN/THE WASHINGTON POST

How the vote of no confidence works

Tories needed 54 letters (15% of their parliamentary group) to challenge Johnson.

Vote of no confidence

Johnson wins the vote

If Johnson gets a simple majority of members of parliament — 180 votes — he can stay as prime minister. Current rules say he cannot be challenged again for a year, though those rules can be changed.

Johnson loses the vote

He can stay as a caretaker for six weeks until a new leader is decided upon.

A very close vote, however, could force him to resign.

Only one candidate

Two candidates

The grass-roots Conservative Party membership decides the new Prime Minister.

Three or more candidates

Conservative lawmakers vote, eliminating the least voted until only two are left.

New Prime Minister

CHIQUI ESTEBAN/THE WASHINGTON POST

How the vote of no confidence works

Tories needed 54 letters (15% of their parliamentary group) to challenge Johnson.

Vote of no confidence

Johnson wins the vote

If Johnson gets a simple majority of members of parliament — 180 votes — he can stay as prime minister. Current rules say he cannot be challenged again for a year, though those rules can be changed.

Johnson loses the vote

He can stay as a caretaker for six weeks until a new leader is decided upon.

A very close vote, however, could force him to resign.

Only one candidate

Two candidates

The grass-roots Conservative Party membership decides the new Prime Minister.

Three or more candidates

Conservative lawmakers vote, eliminating the least voted until only two are left.

New Prime Minister

CHIQUI ESTEBAN/THE WASHINGTON POST

But there is also more general discontent with Johnson’s leadership, which has been compounded by other woes in Britain, including rapidly rising inflation.

Many commentators do not expect Johnson to still be in office by the time of the next general election — which legally must take place before Jan. 24, 2025.

Here’s how we got here.

Boris Johnson survives party no-confidence vote but will govern as a wounded U.K. prime minister

December 2019: A landslide election

Just months after winning a Conservative Party leadership race to succeed Theresa May, Johnson called an early general election.

He would go on to win 365 seats in Britain’s 650-seat Parliament, a win that not only served as the largest electoral win for the Tories since Margaret Thatcher but also inflicted a hobbling blow to the opposition Labour Party.

Johnson, a key backer of Britain’s exit from the European Union, argued that victory showed that Britain wanted to “get Brexit done” after the years of infighting and failed negotiations that had followed the 2016 vote.

January 2020: First covid-19 case in Britain

While much of Westminster was still focused on Brexit negotiations, on Jan. 29 it was confirmed that a new threat had reached the country: the coronavirus. The pandemic would go on to kill more than 170,000 people across Britain, with millions more infected.

Even Johnson himself would get covid-19, becoming ill enough that he was out of the office for weeks and would spend time in an intensive care unit.

Though his illness created public sympathy, Johnson was also widely criticized for his handling of the pandemic.

In October 2021, a year-long inquiry conducted by two committees of the House of Commons called the pandemic “one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced.”

April 2021: Allegations of corruption

In late April 2021, Johnson’s government was hit by allegations of corruption that hit close to home: his apartment.

Britain’s political spending watchdog began an investigation into whether funds used to pay for the refurbishment of 11 Downing Street were properly disclosed.

Months later, the Electoral Commission concluded in December that Johnson’s Conservative Party had not properly reported donations and it imposed a fine of more than $22,000.

Johnson’s government would soon become mired in multiple accusations of “sleaze.” Johnson’s decision to defend a colleague who had accepted payments from two companies he promoted while serving as a lawmaker added to the idea that the prime minister and his allies did not follow the rules.

December 2021: First ‘partygate’ allegations

The defining scandal for Johnson would be the string of parties that were held at Downing Street amid lockdowns and social distancing requirements.

British media soon dubbed it “partygate.”

The scandal quickly led to recriminations and resignations. Reports of an off-limits Christmas Party at 10 Downing Street in 2020 led a communications aide to resign after a video leaked of her jokingly talking about the gathering, long before official denials.

But the scandal showed legs, rolling onward as more details of illicit parties continued into the early months of this year.

Johnson’s approval rating sank, while as early as December, polls were finding that a majority of the country thought the prime minister should resign.

April 2022: Johnson fined for birthday party

On April 12, police investigating the parties fined Johnson for his attendance at a birthday party reportedly organized by his wife at 10 Downing Street during a strict lockdown in June 2020. Johnson apologized and said he accepted the police’s findings but added that he did not think he had broken any rules.

Johnson is the first sitting British prime minister found to have broken the law. The police investigation ultimately determined that 83 people violated lockdown rules, including the prime minister, his wife, Carrie, and Chancellor Rishi Sunak.

May 5, 2022: Local elections

Far from the heights of 2019, Johnson’s governing Conservatives were pummeled in local elections held May 5.

The Tories lost almost 500 seats for municipal councilors, with major defeats in two boroughs of London (Westminster and Wandsworth) that have long been considered the heart of the metropolitan Conservative Party.

Many within the party blamed Johnson for dragging down the party, but the issue was not just partygate. With inflation in Britain hitting record highs, critics argued that Johnson’s mismanagement was causing a cost-of-living crisis.

“We’ve sent a message to the prime minister: Britain deserves better,” Labour leader Keir Starmer said after the vote.

May 25, 2022: ‘Partygate’ report blames Downing Street

A long-awaited internal investigation released May 25 offered little reprieve for Johnson, laying the blame squarely on the prime minister’s office for hosting events at Downing Street that “should not have been allowed to happen.”

The report, compiled by senior civil servant Sue Gray, detailed excessive alcohol consumption and partying until near dawn at the center of British politics. Someone was sick from alcohol on June 18, 2020; there was almost a fight at the same event, which Gray described as a “minor altercation.”

The report detailed 16 gatherings between May 2020 and April 2021 at the prime minister’s Downing Street office, his official residence upstairs or the nearby cabinet office.

There were nine photographs of the prime minister at parties in the report, including one of him raising a glass in a toast.

“The senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility for this culture,” Gray wrote, adding that some junior staff “believed that their involvement in some of these events was permitted given the attendance of senior leaders.”

June 2022: Vote of no confidence

After weeks of speculation, it was confirmed that Johnson would face a vote of no confidence by his fellow Conservative Party lawmakers after at least 54 came out in favor of the motion.

Johnson needed a simple majority of 180 votes or more to remain in power. He got 211. But many analysts believe that he will face persistent calls to step down. Though the current rules prohibit another no-confidence vote within a year, they could be changed.

For some fellow Tories, there will be no coming back. Former allies have come out against him, suggesting that despite his electoral win in 2019, he had since sullied the Conservative Party’s name.

“You are simply seeking to campaign, to keep changing the subject and to create political and cultural dividing lines mainly for your advantage, at a time when the economy is struggling, inflation is soaring and growth is anemic at best,” former treasury minister Jesse Norman wrote in a letter released Monday.

The move against Johnson appeared to have been timed to avoid clashing with the Platinum Jubilee celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II. Johnson and his wife were booed when they arrived at a celebration for the jubilee Friday.

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