Britain’s Boris Johnson survives confidence vote but is politically wounded

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday faced a no-confidence vote by fellow Conservative Party lawmakers.
(Alberto Pezzali / Associated Press)

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday survived the biggest challenge of his political career as he avoided being booted from office by his fellow Conservative Party lawmakers after months of outrage over boozy parties that he and his staff attended while the rest of the country was under COVID-19 lockdown.

The vote of confidence, which saw 211 of 359 Conservative members of Parliament express their support for keeping him as party leader and, therefore, prime minister, means that Johnson — who has gained a reputation for an ability to rebound from controversy — is protected from further internal challenge to his leadership for at least another year.

But the narrow victory by British political standards, a month after an investigator’s report called out “failures of leadership and judgment” over wine- and gin-fueled parties at Johnson’s Downing Street office and residence in 2020 and 2021, leaves him in a weakened position, analysts say. The wounding came less than three years after Johnson celebrated leading Conservatives to one of their biggest election victories in decades.


“He survives, but how well does he survive?” said John Curtice, a politics professor at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. “Did he win by enough to persuade colleagues to stay behind him?”

The previous prime minister, Theresa May, also temporarily avoided an early end to her term after surviving a confidence vote in 2018, only to see her authority among Conservative lawmakers tumble, forcing her to resign less than six months later.

Many Britons were disgusted when photos emerged around the beginning of the year of Johnson, his wife and staff members snacking on wine and cheese in their garden in May 2020 without social distancing, at a time when his government had ordered the country to go under pandemic lockdown. Johnson said he was simply attending a “work meeting.”

He was also forced to apologize for a raucous gathering held in Downing Street the night before the funeral of Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth II’s husband. Critics contrasted the party culture in Johnson’s office with the image of the somber-looking queen sitting alone, according to the rules, at the funeral of her husband of more than seven decades.

In addition to the investigation and published report on the “partygate” scandal by a senior civil servant, Scotland Yard looked into the parties and issued more than 100 fines for breaches of lockdown rules. Johnson himself was fined 50 pounds (about $63), making him the first British prime minister to be sanctioned for breaking the law while in office.

Monday evening’s secret ballot of Tory lawmakers, which came after an extended holiday weekend during which Johnson was booed as he arrived at a church service honoring the queen’s 70-year reign, was announced in the morning by Conservative official Graham Brady, who said he had received letters from the required 15% of the party’s lawmakers asking for the vote.

Addressing Conservatives ahead of the vote, Johnson told them to avoid a “pointless fratricidal debate about the future of the party” and vowed to lead them to “victory again.”

“Tonight is a chance to end months of speculation and allow the government to draw a line and move on, delivering on the people’s priorities,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement prior to the vote.

After the results were in, Johnson stuck to the messaging, calling the decision a “decisive” one that would allow his government to “move on.”

The description contrasted with that of analysts and British media. The Guardian described the outcome as an “unexpectedly large rebellion.”

Johnson’s allies were quick to praise him Monday evening. In a tweet, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss wrote that she was “pleased that colleagues have backed the Prime Minister. I support him 100%. Now’s the time to get on with the job.”

Others struck a different tone. The vote was “severely damaging,” Conservative Roger Gale, who said he voted against Johnson, told the BBC. “I think the prime minister has to go back to Downing Street tonight and consider very carefully where he goes from here.”

Even though Johnson won the challenge to his leadership, the fact that there was a vote will damage the prime minister’s reputation, one analyst said.

“There were ministers of Parliament who were willing to tolerate the parts of Johnson that they did not like. But the culture of law-breaking became too much for some,” said Anand Menon, a politics professor at King’s College London.

The question around Johnson, Curtice said, has become whether his party and the public are “willing to believe him.”

“Politicians spin, and there are always judgments about their policy. But this is the first time that the ethics and polity of a prime minister have come into question in this manner,” Curtice said. “The central question is, do you believe the prime minister? If you think he lied, are you willing to believe him on other issues?”

Monday’s developments are the latest chapter in Johnson’s roller-coaster career as a politician. Before becoming prime minister in 2019, he held a variety of offices — among them, mayor of London and British foreign secretary — but repeatedly found himself on the skids after gaffes and political mistakes. At the same time, observers marveled at his ability to come back from scandal and his popularity as a campaigner who could excite voters and turn them to his party.

Under Johnson, the Tories stormed to a landslide victory in the 2019 national election, flipping many districts that had long been considered bastions of the opposition Labor Party.

But the recurring scandals over ethics and U-turns on policy decisions have increasingly made Conservative lawmakers see Johnson as a liability who could hurt their chances in the next election, which must be held by 2024.

“Today’s decision is change or lose,” Jeremy Hunt, a former Cabinet member who ran against Johnson in the 2019 contest for Conservative Party leader, said before Monday’s confidence vote. “I will be voting for change.”