Boris Johnson remains in danger despite confidence vote success

Westminster now braced for potential resignations from ministers in British government

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been feeling the pressure of late. AFP
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Boris Johnson’s future as Britain’s prime minister has been thrown into doubt after a major rebellion against him during a confidence vote he won.

As the announcement was made in Committee Room 14 of the House of Commons on Monday night, half the room erupted in cheers, loudly banging their desks in support of Mr Johnson. However, a significant number remained motionless and silent after Conservative MPs voted by 211 to 148 in support of the prime minister.

Mr Johnson drew his senior ministers together at a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday to set the tone for his comeback. The prime minister told the Cabinet to “focus exclusively” on bread-and-butter issues such as inflation and inequality, and hinted at future tax cuts and improvements to public services as he tries to claw back support.

Mr Johnson now faces a massive uphill struggle to retain his authority and premiership, with speculation growing in Westminster that it might be a matter of weeks before he is out of office.

Rebels said they accepted the verdict of the party but were also looking for new avenues to challenge the wounded leader. Pointing to the last Conservative leader and former prime minister, Theresa May, opponents suggested Mr Johnson's future was still in doubt.

Mrs May received support from 63 per cent of the party in her 2018 confidence challenge, Mr Johnson achieved only 58 per cent. “That’s a terrible result for Boris,” said one MP. “Far worse than what Theresa May got."

“It’s now up to the cabinet to lead the way,” said another MP, who was clearly emotional after the sudden call for a confidence vote following the Partygate scandal.

“I’d call on Rishi [Sunak] to lead to the way. Boris Johnson has now lost a large chunk of his backbenchers. This is unsustainable.”

Westminster is now braced for potential resignations from government ministers, with speculation that a number were among the 148 who voted against Mr Johnson.

Ministers strove to defend the result, taking to social media to drive home the message.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak said in a tweet that it was “time to move forward” after the prime minister’s confidence vote victory.

“Tomorrow we get back to work growing the economy and delivering better public services," he added.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and senior colleague Michael Gove also tweeted their support for Mr Johnson.

“Pleased that colleagues have backed the Prime Minister," Ms Truss said. “I support him 100 per cent. Now’s the time to get on with the job.”

Mr Gove, the Housing Secretary, said it was time to “focus on the people’s priorities” now that Mr Johnson has “secured” the trust of his MPs.

“Now we must carry out what we were elected to deliver — levelling up, cutting crime, securing the benefits of Brexit and improving public services,” he said.

“Let’s get on with delivery and focus on the people’s priorities.”

Foreign Office minister James Cleverly said: “I think the country would rightly be very, very upset if we as a party decided to ignore what the wider party said when they elected him leader, what the country said when they made him prime minister and what the bulk of Conservative MPs have now said today, which is that they want him to stay.

“So, people have got to recognise they didn’t get the vote of no confidence through and what they should now do is say, ‘OK, we respect the democratic decision of the party, we are going to support the prime minister in getting on with the job’.”

“It was a comfortable win. It was a clear win.

"And I’ll tell you something, if there is any other candidate who thinks they are going to get 60 per cent of the parliamentary party rallying around him, good luck with that."

Mr Johnson’s victory in the vote does not mean the end of his problems.

While Conservative Party rules mean he is safe from a confidence vote for another year, Mr Johnson still faces a daunting list of challenges.

First on the list will be mending his own divided party. A confidence vote is never a good thing for a leader and the 148 votes against him means he now faces an internal opposition that is difficult to ignore.

While it is possible this might translate to more backbench rebellions, Mr Johnson’s authority is now seriously dented and he may struggle to push through parts of his agenda should he encounter Cabinet opposition.

The suggestion that he could carry out a reshuffle could present further problems. It may be difficult for Mr Johnson to promote those who supported him on Monday without making more enemies by sacking those already in government.

Away from his internal party problems, the cost-of-living crisis continues to present the chief policy challenge.

In the short term, inflation is set to continue rising and further support from the Treasury may become necessary over the winter. A “reasonable worst-case scenario” could include power cuts for millions of homes.

In the longer term, the government faces continuing difficulties thanks to poor productivity growth and sluggish economic expansion overall.

Getting the economy growing again is a subject that consumes both the government and centre-right think tanks, and could be critical to Mr Sunak keeping his promise of cutting income tax in 2024.

Added to this is the challenge of recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic.

National Health Service waiting lists continue to swell, with about 6.4 million people in England alone, Meanwhile, the backlog of criminal cases in the crown courts remains high, with about 14,700 cases waiting more than a year to be dealt with.

More work will also be needed to help children to catch up on education missed during the pandemic, and all these difficulties will require close attention to solve them.

In foreign policy, the war in Ukraine and attempts to counter Russian influence in the UK are a crucial priority, but the government is also headed for a renewed row with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Monday's vote does not draw a line under the Partygate scandal, either, as the House of Commons privileges committee is still conducting an investigation into whether Mr Johnson knowingly misled Parliament when he said there had been no parties in Downing Street.

If the committee finds that he did mislead the House, there will be renewed calls for his resignation. It is also possible the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers could change its rules to allow another confidence vote within a year.

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Updated: June 07, 2022, 12:34 PM
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