LONDON – Prime Minister Boris Johnson survived a tense vote of no confidence on Monday, fending off a mutiny that nevertheless leaves him reeling and presage a volatile period in British politics, as he fights to stay in power and lead a divided Conservative Party.
The vote, 211 to 148, fell short of the majority of Tory lawmakers needed to oust Mr. Johnson. But it laid bare how badly his support has eroded since last year, when a scandal erupted over revelations that he and his senior aides threw parties at 10 Downing Street that violated the government lockdown rules. More than 40 percent of Conservative lawmakers voted against him in an unexpectedly large rebellion.
Mr. Johnson vowed to stay on, declaring that the victory should put an end to months of speculation about his future. “It’s a convincing result, a decisive result,” the prime minister said from Downing Street after the results of the secret ballot were announced.
“As a government,” Mr. Johnson added, “We can focus and move on the stuff that really matters to people.”
History shows, however, that Conservative prime ministers who have been subjected to such a vote – even if they win it – are usually drummed out of office, if not immediately then within a few months.
Mr. Johnson won a smaller share of his party’s support on Monday than either his predecessor, Theresa May, did in 2018, or Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher did in 1990, when they survived no-confidence votes. Mrs. May was forced out six months later. Mrs. Thatcher lasted only a few days.
And yet, Mr. Johnson is a singular figure in British politics, gleefully defying convention and often seeming immune to the rules of political gravity. With a comfortable majority in Parliament, his party is no danger of losing power. He could opt to ride out the storm, claiming, as he did on Monday evening, that he got a larger mandate than when he was first elected leader of the party in July 2019.
Still, for a politician who led the Tories to a landslide election victory in 2019 with the promise to “get Brexit done,” it was a bruising fall from grace – one that could expose him to a political insurgency in his party, an empowered opposition , and further electoral setbacks that weaken his credibility.
In two and a half years, Mr. Johnson has gone from Britain’s most reliable vote-getter – a celebrity politician who redrew the country’s political map – to a scandal-scarred figure whose job has been in peril since the first reports of illicit lockdown parties emerged last November.
As Britons paid tribute to Queen Elizabeth’s 70-year reign last week, they were turning against the chaotic tenure of their prime minister. On Friday, Mr. Johnson was loudly booed by the crowd at St. Paul’s Cathedral when he and his wife, Carrie, attended a thanksgiving service for the queen.
That moment may crystallized the loss of public support for Mr. Johnson, an ethically flexible journalist-turned-politician whose peccadilloes were forgiven more often than not by a public he proved adept at charming.
Still, for now, Mr. Johnson remains in power, and under the party’s current rules, he cannot face another no-confidence vote for a year. The odds of removing him will depend on several wild cards.
Will his Cabinet turn against him, as Mrs. Thatcher’s did after the vote in 1990, precipitating her swift resignation? Will the party threaten to change the rules and hold a second no-confidence vote, as it suggested it might with Mrs. May, persuading her to negotiate her exit? Will Mr. Johnson gamble by calling an early general election, seeking a mandate from the public that he could not get from his party?
Mr. Johnson sought to deflect questions about a new election on Monday night, saying only, “I’m certainly not interested in snap elections.”
In 1995, Prime Minister John Major triggered, and won, a leadership contest in the Conservative Party, only to go down to a crushing defeat to Tony Blair and the Labor Party two years later. Given Britain’s economic woes and the Conservative Party’s weakness in the polls, some Tories fear a similar outcome this time.
Opposition leaders seized on the result to paint Conservative lawmakers as having endorsed the leadership of a lawbreaking prime minister.
“Conservative MP’s made their choice tonight,” said the leader of the Labor Party, Keir Starmer. “They have ignored the wishes of the British public.” Voters, he said, are “fed up – fed up – with a prime minister who promises big but never delivers.”
The result leaves Conservatives restive and divided, after a tense day in which senior members of the party sparred openly on social media. Some lawmakers argued that his position had become untenable.
Roger Gale, a Conservative lawmaker, expressed surprise at the size of the rebellion. “I think the prime minister has to go back to Downing Street tonight and consider very carefully where he goes from here,” Mr. Gale told the BBC.
But one of Mr. Johnson’s defenders, James Cleverly, a minister in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, said, “he’s won it comfortably and now we need to get on with the job.” He said of Mr. Johnson’s electoral track record, “There’s no other candidate that is going to get anything like that level of support.”
Mr. Johnson was greeted warmly when he addressed Conservatives earlier this afternoon, with some lawmakers pounding their desks in gestures of support, according to those in attendance. But he also got challenging questions, and as the members drifted out of the committee room afterward, it was clear he had not convinced all those who opposed him to call off their mutiny.
“I told the prime minister that if he broke the law he would have to go,” said Steve Baker, an influential pro-Brexit lawmaker who has called on Mr. Johnson to step down. “He’s clearly broken the law, he’s clearly acquiesced in the law being broken, so I stick to my word that I gave on the record that he should go.”
Noting that he had helped Mr. Johnson becomes prime minister, Mr. Baker described it as an “awful moment.”
Mr. Cleverly said the prime minister “was in very much serious mode,” and that his speech was “light on jokes and heavy on plans and policy.”
“He’s actually got a plan for what he wants to do next, how we deliver on the promises we made in the 2019 general election,” he said, “how we continue delivering through really, really difficult times.”
The latest chapter of this drama began on Sunday when Mr. Johnson was informed by Graham Brady, the head of a committee of Conservative Party backbenchers, that the threshold of 54 letters calling for a no-confidence vote had been reached. Mr. Brady and Mr. Johnson then negotiated the timing of a vote, with the prime minister pushing to hold it quickly.
That gave Mr. Johnson had a tactical advantage because it deprived would-be rivals of time to organize a challenge to him. One potential challenger, Jeremy Hunt, tried to move quickly, declaring on Monday that he would be “voting for change.” Mr. Hunt, a former health secretary and foreign secretary, lost out to Mr. Johnson as party leader in 2019.
Nadine Dorries, Mr. Johnson’s culture secretary and one of his most ardent defenders, bitterly criticized Mr. Hunt for “destabilizing the party and country to serve your own ambition.” In a post on Twitter, she said, “You’ve been wrong about almost everything, you are wrong again now.”
The timing of the vote was also dictated by Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee, a four-day celebration that ended on Sunday. Mr. Brady was determined not to allow news of a no-confidence vote to overshadow the festivities. As a result, Britain’s political drama played out behind closed doors while the political establishment gathered to pay tribute to the queen in a series of public events.
After he had been told of the vote, Mr. Johnson and his wife, Carrie, attended a pageant at Buckingham Palace, where his face betrayed no signs of the brewing crisis. Several lawmakers who submitted letters calling for a vote asked Mr. Brady that they be postdated so they would not be seen as interfering with the jubilee.
During a star-studded concert on Saturday evening, Mr. Johnson watched performers including Alicia Keys and Queen while Conservative lawmakers pored over a memo from anonymous members circulating on their WhatsApp group, which warned that failing to eject Mr. Johnson would bring the party to ruin, according to a report in The Telegraph.
The blunt assessment of the memo, published by The Telegraph, was that “Boris Johnson is no longer an electoral asset.”
Megan Specia contributed reporting.