Political Dangers Remain for British PM After Failed Bid to Oust Him

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Tuesday his Conservative Party should “draw a line under our issues” after he survived a no-confidence vote by his own Members of Parliament Monday evening, following months of speculation over the future of his leadership. 

The prime minister held a meeting of his Cabinet Tuesday, where ministers expressed their support and claimed he had a “fresh mandate” to govern.

In Monday night’s ballot, 211 MPs voted in favor of Johnson, with some 148 voting against him – meaning over 40% of his own MPs wanted to oust him as party leader and prime minister.

As the result was announced by Graham Brady, the chairman of the Conservative Party’s 1922 Committee of backbench MPs, Boris Johnson’s supporters erupted in cheers. 

‘Move on’

The prime minister put a positive spin on the outcome. “I think it’s an extremely good, positive, conclusive, decisive result, which enables us to move on, to unite and to focus on delivery,” he told reporters.

Education Secretary Nadim Zahawi, a long-time supporter of Johnson, agreed it was time to move on – and praised the prime minister for the military support he had given to Ukraine.

“We’ve got to deal with the backlog of the NHS (National Health Service), safer streets and of course war in Europe. What do you think (Ukrainian) President (Volodymyr) Zelenskyy will be thinking tonight? He’ll be punching the air because he knows his great ally, Boris Johnson, will be prime minister tomorrow morning. That’s what we’ve got to focus on,” Zahawi told Sky News Monday evening.

Politically wounded

However, the prime minister has been politically wounded by the vote, according to Anand Menon, a professor of European politics at Kings College London.

“This really is a pretty bad result for the prime minister and what it means going forward I think is that prime ministerial survival will be the foundation stone of this government,” Menon told VOA.

Boris Johnson delivered the Conservative Party a thumping 80-seat majority at the December 2019 election by promising to “get Brexit done.” His predecessor, Theresa May, was forced to resign after repeatedly failing to get a Brexit agreement through parliament.

Britain finally left the European Union weeks later, just as the coronavirus pandemic was hitting the continent. Johnson’s popularity peaked around May 2020, after he survived several days in intensive care having contracted the virus.  

Plummeting popularity

So what went wrong? 

The latest polls show his popularity has plummeted, with some 68% of voters saying he is doing a bad job, versus 26% who approve. He and his wife, Carrie, were booed Friday by sections of the crowd at Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee service at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. 

“Boris Johnson being booed at St. Paul’s was quite a moment, actually,” says Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “One would expect most of the people who attend events like that as members of the public to be pretty traditional conservatives and for them actually to make their displeasure so obvious in public, I think is quite significant moment,” Bale told the Associated Press.

Party-gate

Johnson is the first British prime minister to be convicted of breaking the law while in office, after police investigations into parties held at his Downing Street residence during COVID-19 lockdowns – so-called party-gate. A parliamentary investigation into the parties is still ongoing. Johnson had previously told MPs that no such events were held.

“A number of his own MPs cited the fact that he had clearly lied to parliament as a reason for voting against him,” said analyst Anand Menon. “And secondly, those same MPs have seen the prime minister’s popularity ratings with the British public tank.”

Divisions

The prime minister denies that he lied to parliament. But his problems run deeper, according to Menon.

“Whether it be party-gate, whether it be a sense amongst his own backbenchers that there is no coherent plan for government, or whether it be the fact that actually the Conservative Party is divided.” 

Historically, British prime ministers who suffered significant rebellions haven’t survived long in the job – including Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Theresa May. “Boris Johnson is slightly strengthened by the fact that there is no obvious successor,” Menon said.

Johnson’s supporters say he got the big calls right: giving military support to Ukraine; delivering on the Brexit referendum; a fast COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

But his critics say he is now a political liability and their calls for him to resign are unlikely to die down.

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