British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has survived the internal censure motion raised by his Conservative Party colleagues and triggered by the Downing Street party scandal while the rest of the country complied with pandemic restrictions. Johnson has obtained 211 votes in favor and 148 against, which means that 40% of his deputies have voted to expel the prime minister in a great internal rebellion.
Despite the victory and the fact that party rules prevent holding a new confidence vote against Johnson for another year, the vote reflects the division in the conservative ranks and the weakness of the prime minister, who two and a half years ago won on the back of the ‘get Brexit done’ an overwhelming majority and the best result for the Tories in more than three decades.
However, the prime minister has stated that the result is “positive, decisive and convincing” and believes that it will allow him to turn the page on the party scandal. “What we have to do now is unite as a party and move forward on the issues that matter,” he said in an interview with the BBC in which he also ruled out calling early elections.
The polls, however, do not reflect Johnson’s optimism. Since the final report on parties in government buildings was published two weeks ago, in which there was talk of “drunkenness”, “wine through the walls” and maneuvers to flee journalists, 59% of Britons believe that the prime minister should resign and only 30% think that he should remain in office, according to a YouGov survey. 74% of those surveyed believe Johnson lied about the parties, a view shared by 51% of conservative voters.
Also, ever since the party scandal broke, the Labor Party leads the polls in voting intention. “The last time we led the polls was on December 6, a week after the first news of the partygate”, it is stated in a document, drawn up by a rebel deputy and which has circulated widely among conservative parliamentarians hours before the vote, in which the reasons for initiating the motion are stated.
Labor Party leader Keir Starmer has said the country has to choose between “divided Tories propping up Boris Johnson with no plan to tackle the problems they face, or a united Labor Party with a plan to fix the cost of living crisis and to restore confidence in politics.
Johnson had known since Sunday that there was already a sufficient number of Conservative MPs (54) to initiate the internal motion and this Monday he had sent a letter to his party colleagues expressly asking for their support. In the letter, the prime minister argued that the vote on his leadership was an opportunity to “end the media’s favorite obsession”, referring to the multiple parties held in times of pandemic and for which Johnson himself has been fined.
“I know that in recent months I have been the target of many attacks and I know that experience has been painful for the whole party. Some of that criticism has perhaps been fair and some has been less so,” Johnson noted. “If we can come together in the next few days, then in due time we will win again, restore the trust of the 14 million who have voted for us, and continue to serve the country we love.”
Shortly before the vote, the Prime Minister had addressed the Conservative MPs in a private meeting. “This is a time to unite and believe me whatever they say about me, I will lead you to victory again,” he said at that meeting, according to local media reports. The prime minister threatened a Labor government as an alternative: “The only way we can allow that to happen is if we were foolish enough to fall into a pointless fratricidal debate about the future of our party.”
Former Foreign and Health Minister Jeremy Hunt, who lost the party’s primaries against Johnson in 2019 and is now one of the favorites to succeed him, has been one of the most explicit against the prime minister. “We are not giving the British people the leadership they deserve. We are not offering the necessary integrity, competence and vision and since we no longer have the trust of the electorate, we are on our way to losing the next elections”, he has published on social networks. “Today’s decision is to change or lose,” he added.
Culture Minister Nadine Dorries has responded by directly attacking Hunt in a reflection of internal tensions: “Your hypocrisy is destabilizing the party and the country because of your personal ambitions.” “You have been wrong in practically everything and you are wrong again now,” she added.
The Irish Protocol
“If Boris Johnson narrowly wins, his authority in the Commons and in the party will be destroyed. Most prime ministers would resign. However, it has been suggested that he would consider calling an early election (despite the electoral risk) as the only way to restore his personal mandate, ”says the critical document that has circulated among conservative deputies.
Theresa May survived an internal motion in December 2018 with a higher percentage of support and ended up resigning a few months later in the face of the rebellion over the agreement reached with the EU for Brexit. The main obstacle for May was the clause to avoid raising a border on the island of Ireland, an agreement that, according to her critics, was going to leave the United Kingdom trapped in the community bloc indefinitely.
Johnson negotiated and defended a new protocol and now intends to revoke it, another argument used by the rebel deputies. The agreement, in practice, moves the border to the sea between the island of Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom to avoid that border being between Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is still in the customs union. A solution that provokes the rejection of the Northern Irish unionists, who are currently blocking the formation of the regional government. In this sense, British media have indicated that Johnson would be prepared to turn the threats of the past weeks into reality and present new legislation to annul the protocol, which would provoke a crisis with the EU, but would allow him to win support among staunch Brexiteer Conservative MPs.