LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced a confidence vote on Monday after a growing number of lawmakers in his Conservative Party questioned the British leader’s authority over what has been dubbed the “partygate” scandal.
Johnson, who scored a sweeping election victory in 2019, has been under growing pressure after he and staff held alcohol-fueled parties at the heart of power when Britain was under strict lockdowns to tackle the spread of COVID-19.
Underlining the depth of anger, he was met with a chorus of jeers and boos – and some muted cheers – at events to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth in recent days.
On Monday, the once seemingly unassailable Johnson was also lambasted by ally Jesse Norman, a former junior minister who said the 57-year-old prime minister staying in power insulted both the electorate and the party.
“You have presided over a culture of casual law-breaking at 10 Downing Street in relation to COVID,” he said, adding the government had “a large majority, but no long-term plan.”
Norman is one of a growing number of Conservative lawmakers to publicly say that Johnson has lost his authority to govern Britain, which is facing rising prices, the risk of recession and strike-inflicted travel chaos in the capital London.
Jeremy Hunt, a former health minister who ran against Johnson for the leadership in 2019, said the party knew it was failing the country. “Today’s decision is change or lose,” he said. “I will be voting for change.”
Johnson’s anti-corruption chief John Penrose resigned. “I think it’s over. It feels now like a question of when not if,” he told Sky News.
A majority of the 359 Conservative lawmakers – at least 180 – would have to vote against Johnson for him to be removed – a level some Conservatives say might be difficult to reach, given the lack of an obvious successor.
If passed, there would then be a leadership contest to decide his replacement, which could take several weeks.
DRAWING A LINE?
Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee that represents rank-and-file Conservative lawmakers, said a vote would be held between 6 pm and 8 pm (1700-1900 GMT) and the result would be announced later on Monday.
A spokesperson for Johnson’s Downing Street office said the vote would “allow the government to draw a line and move on.”
“The PM welcomes the opportunity to make his case to MPs (members of parliament) and will remind them that when they’re united and focused on the issues that matter to voters there is no more formidable political force.”
Johnson, a former London mayor, rose to power at Westminster as the face of the Brexit campaign in a 2016 referendum, and took a hardline stance once in power.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, Brexit opportunities minister, told Sky News that completing Britain’s departure from the European Union would be “significantly at risk without his drive and energy.”
Johnson has locked horns with Brussels over Northern Ireland, raising the prospect of more barriers for British trade and alarming leaders in Ireland, Europe and the United States about risks to the province’s 1998 peace deal.
Ministers have also been at pains to point out what they describe as the highpoints of Johnson’s administration – saying Britain’s quick rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations and its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine proved the prime minister could take the “big decisions.”
“I am backing him today and will continue to back him as we focus on growing the economy, tackling the cost of living and clearing the COVID backlogs,” finance minister Rishi Sunak said on Twitter in a choreographed expression of support.
In letters sent out to Conservative lawmakers, Johnson also made the same point, urging them to support him.
Johnson, or his possible successor, face a raft of problems. British households are confronted by the biggest cost-of-living squeeze since records began in the 1950s, with food and fuel prices surging while wages lag.
For some Conservatives, Johnson is guilty of squandering a large majority, unable or unwilling to set the agenda after becoming hamstrung by scandals.
But others expect him to survive the vote, and although wounded, he could reset his administration and focus on what one party veteran described as “sounding and acting like a Conservative.”
For those hopeful of replacing him, bookmaker Ladbrokes put Hunt, a former health and foreign minister, as its favorite, followed by foreign minister Liz Truss.
For many in Britain, the revelations of what went on in Downing Street, including fights and alcohol-induced vomiting, when many people were prevented from saying goodbye to loved ones at funerals, were difficult to stomach.
Mel Chetwood, a 61-year-old archivist, said the sight of Johnson being booed by a royal-supporting audience was key.
“I thought that was so telling,” Chetwood said. “That felt like a turning point to me.”
(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper; Additional reporting by William James, Alistair Smout, William Schomberg and Farouq Suleiman; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge, Kate Holton, Alex Richardson and Mark Heinrich)