The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Boris Johnson survives but is weakened by no-confidence vote

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)
7 min

LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson survived a cliffhanger vote of no confidence by his fellow Conservative Party lawmakers Monday evening, prevailing despite deep disgust over lockdown-breaking parties at Downing Street and broad discontent with his leadership, which one former ally branded a “charade.”

Johnson won the party-only secret balloting by 211 to 148 — surpassing the simple majority of 180 votes he needed to remain in office. Though he held on to his job, the vote was remarkably close for a prime minister who helped the Conservatives win a landslide election in 2019.

His salvation may have been the lack of an obvious successor within the party.

Johnson had framed the vote as “a golden chance” to “end the media’s favorite obsession” with the boozy pandemic gatherings at his offices. And when the result was tallied, he told broadcasters it was “convincing” and “decisive” and allowed the Tories to “move on” and “focus on the stuff that I think really matters to people.”

But there remains an active open rebellion within his party, with many top voices now on-the-record saying this prime minister is unfit to serve. Fellow Conservative Party lawmakers have questioned his truthfulness and complained that his administration is reactive and adrift.

How Johnson proceeds with his domestic and foreign agenda is unclear. He is a wounded leader. He and the Conservatives will struggle to rebuild their brand in the face of soaring inflation and diminished public trust. And allies in Europe and the United States are now on notice that his authority has been undercut by his own doing.

Surviving a no-confidence vote under the current rules insulates Johnson from additional party challenges for a year. But those rules can be changed.

Looming over Monday’s vote was the recollection that Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, beat a no-confidence challenge over her failed Brexit deal in 2018, only to be forced to resign the next year. When May faced her vote, 37 percent of her lawmakers voted against her; Johnson did worse, with 41 percent of his lawmakers voting against him.

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

In opinion surveys, Johnson’s polling numbers are in the dumpster after months of drip-drip revelations about how he allowed his staff to turn his office and residence of 10 Downing Street into an ersatz frat house during the darkest days of the pandemic — with “BYOB” party invites, karaoke singing, fisticuffs and vomiting.

According to a recent Ipsos poll, 54 percent of British people said Johnson is doing a bad job running the country. He was also booed by some when he attended a jubilee service on Friday at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

In a scathing letter posted Monday on social media, lawmaker Jesse Norman, a former Johnson ally, said the prime minister had presided over a “a culture of casual lawbreaking” at Downing Street.

He added that his frustration extended beyond the scandal, calling Johnson’s policy priorities “deeply questionable.” He mentioned the government’s plan to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda and its threat to violate the Northern Ireland protocol negotiated as part of the Brexit deal.

“For you to prolong this charade by remaining in office not only insults the electorate, and the tens of thousands of people who support, volunteer, represent and campaign for our party,” he wrote. “it makes a decisive change of government at the next election more likely.”

After Johnson made it through the no-confidence vote, opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer pounced, tweeting to voters that the “divided Tories propping up Boris Johnson” will have “no plan to tackle the issues you are facing.”

From the prime minister’s defenders, the message on Monday was that Johnson had gotten “the big decisions right” — on Brexit, the pandemic, support for Ukraine — and apologized for his mistakes.

In a letter to Conservative lawmakers, Johnson acknowledged: “I have come under a great deal of fire, and I know that experience has been painful for the whole party.”

He added: “Some of that criticism has perhaps been fair, some less so.”

In a communication more focused on the public, Johnson tweeted a picture of himself on the phone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “President [Zelensky] just updated me on the ongoing battle against Russian aggression in the Donbas.”

U.K. ‘Partygate’ report blames No. 10 for boozy lockdown parties

Johnson has been a staunch supporter of Ukraine, mirroring U.S. actions on sanctions against Russian oligarchs and shipping weapons to the battlefield.

After the vote, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi told Sky News that Zelensky must be “punching the air” because his ally Johnson would stay on.

But while Johnson has been cheered in Kyiv, calls for his resignation have been simmering for months, fueled by what many saw as weaselly responses to questions about Partygate and by local elections that were a disaster for Conservatives.

Almost as soon as Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations ended, Conservatives announced that the threshold of 54 no-confidence letters — equal to 15 percent of the party’s lawmakers in Parliament — had been reached and would trigger a vote.

Speaking to reporters, Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee that receives no-confidence letters, said he had told Johnson on Sunday evening that the threshold for a no-confidence vote had been met. Brady did not say how many letters he had received. He noted that some of those calling for a vote had said it should only take place once jubilee celebrations were over.

Will Jennings, a politics expert at the University of Southampton, said Conservative politicians were maneuvering now — “after an obvious pause for the jubilee” — as many have calculated that the Partygate scandal “will hang over the PM in the run-up to the next election” in 2½ years.

Johnson’s critics, Jennings said, have noticed that “voters have moved on from Partygate, they don’t want to hear about Partygate. But they have very much made up their minds about Partygate. They think that the prime minister broke the rules, there’s very broad support for him going, and the public don’t see him as trustworthy. This is starting to pose a serious electoral threat to the Conservative Party.”

But there’s no leading successor for Tory lawmakers to rally around.

“I mean, we don’t have an alternative,” Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said on LBC radio. “I think the idea that we spend three months or whatever it might be, finding a new leader and all that, going through all of that beauty contest, is absurd.”

Who could replace Boris Johnson? Here are some possible contenders.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak was once considered the party’s Plan B, but he, too, was implicated in Partygate, and he faced a further controversy over his billionaire wife’s tax-filing status.

A YouGov poll of Conservative Party members on Monday found that Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, who has played a prominent role in Britain’s response to the war in Ukraine, was the favorite to replace Johnson. But even then, he was the pick of just 12 percent.

Liz Truss, the foreign secretary who is also one of the favorites to succeed Johnson, tweeted her support ahead of Monday’s secret balloting: “The Prime Minister has my 100% backing in today’s vote and I strongly encourage colleagues to support him … He has apologised for mistakes made. We must now focus on economic growth.”

Jeremy Hunt, a former foreign secretary, said in a tweet thread that he would be “voting for change.” Some say he would make a fresh bid for the leadership if Johnson is forced out.

“Having been trusted with power, Conservative MPs know in our hearts we are not giving the British people the leadership they deserve. We are not offering the integrity, competence and vision necessary to unleash the enormous potential of our country,” he said.

“And because we are no longer trusted by the electorate, who know this too, we are set to lose the next general election.”