Can Boris Johnson defy political gravity?

British PM could be out of his job in days or weeks but might ultimately survive his deepest crisis

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson is attempting to shore up his shattered authority after surviving a no-confidence vote on Monday that has left him a severely weakened leader. AP
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Boris Johnson’s political career has been defined as one that defies gravity, with the normal rules not applying to him.

Can the British prime minister beat the odds and survive what would normally prove a politically mortal wound of 148 Conservative colleagues having no confidence in his leadership?

The coming days and weeks will be critical to whether he will cheat political death and recover. On Tuesday, he gathered his Cabinet together to set out how he planned to secure his leadership.

“If anyone can bounce back and show resilience, it’s Boris Johnson,” said his loyal Welsh Secretary, Simon Hart.

The resilience of Mr Johnson’s 20 or so key Cabinet ministers is vital. So far, like Mr Hart, they have remained united in support in the knowledge that their careers are now thoroughly tied to the prime minister’s.

With his Cabinet intact, Mr Johnson could then face down his rebellious MPs and with the passage of time put the Partygate scandal behind him.

On Tuesday morning, in the hangover from the torrid day of the confidence vote, there was a degree of silence among the rebels and critics. Some analysts suggested it was an “omerta”, giving Cabinet ministers space to decide whether senior figures should enter Downing Street to tell Mr Johnson his time was up.

Even then it would not be beyond his ability to stare down the approach. But, having seen him at close quarters going in to vote on Monday night, looking weary and muttering under his breath, it felt that even he was a man approaching his limits.

Those limits will be tested again on Wednesday at Prime Minister’s Questions when his greatest concern will be from those MPs sitting on benches behind, rather than the Labour opposition in front.

Will a series of Tory MPs stand and publicly demand his resignation? Will it be a dramatic moment for a minister such as Penny Mordaunt to announce her resignation and move to the back benches?

If Mr Johnson survives this week, on June 23 is another poll — two by-elections in Wakefield, and Tiverton and Honiton — which are likely to be heavy defeats for the Tories.

“If we don’t see genuine change reflected in the polls, then the storm clouds will gather again,” warned leading rebel MP Tobias Ellwood.

But Mr Johnson could brazen that out and limp on, waiting for Parliament's summer break, which starts next month.

A Cabinet meeting on Tuesday the day after 41 per cent of Conservative MPs voted no confidence in Boris Johnson's leadership. Ministers' support will be crucial to his survival. AFP

The Conservative election rules state that a confidence vote cannot take place again for another 12 months, technically keeping Mr Johnson in post until June 2023. But it has been suggested that these rules could be “changed in an afternoon” if the unrest grows.

However, it is the disquiet among the British public that will be likely to count the most. They can take a lot from politicians but blatant hypocrisy, going against their sense of “fair play” is widely regarded as intolerable.

Hence the slump in Mr Johnson’s ratings since it was disclosed that while the rest of the country stayed alone locked in their homes during the pandemic, boozy parties at Downing Street were the norm.

A recent poll showed 59 per cent wanted him out of office, the Conservatives trail Labour by seven points and at the jubilee celebrations on Friday Mr Johnson was booed outside St Paul’s Cathedral.

It might then dawn on those 211 MPs who voted their confidence in Mr Johnson’s leadership on Monday that the longer he remains in office, the greater the Conservative brand will be tarnished.

Or it might be that gravity again fails to apply to Boris Johnson, that he defies the doomsayers, thrives and survives.

Updated: June 07, 2022, 12:54 PM
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