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Boris Johnson barely survives a challenge to his leadership


Boris Johnson, seated in an ornate chair, reaches his hands forward as if greeting someone. Behind him is a white fireplace and a British flag.
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson at a meeting at 10 Downing Street on June 6, 2022, in London, England. | Alberto Pezzali/WPA/Getty Images

Partygate hasn’t taken down the UK prime minister — at least not yet.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has survived a no-confidence vote, but his political future remains tenuous amid a strong Conservative Party rebellion against his leadership.

The final vote Monday was 211 to 148, which means Johnson won enough support from Conservative members of Parliament to remain as the leader of his party after facing months of allegations that he lied about parties hosted at Downing Street during the worst of the Covid-19 crisis. But he is far from safe, with more than 40 percent of his own party voting against him. Public opinion is also souring against him.

Johnson had previously said this no-confidence vote would be a “golden chance” to move past the media’s obsession with Partygate, and get on with the job. But this vote suggests anything but. “This isn’t going to go anywhere because it is a millstone around his neck — and will be now for as long as his premiership continues,” said Nicholas Allen, a professor of politics at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Johnson’s leadership can’t be challenged by the party for 12 months, based on the current rules, though his narrow margin of victory may mean that he still faces pressure to resign. Another leader likely would step aside — but Johnson isn’t exactly that, and he has already shown that he’s willing to defy political norms.

Still, this is a stunning turn for the politician who helped deliver Conservatives a resounding victory in 2019. But if history is any guide, he may struggle to recover from this vote. This very well might be the “beginning of the end” for Johnson’s leadership.

Johnson’s no-confidence vote, brought to you by Partygate

Johnson’s political troubles began last year, when a drip-drip of revelations began to appear in the press about government and Conservative Party officials holding holiday parties (and joking about them). What made these soirees among coworkers so scandalous is the timing: They happened while England was under strict Covid-19 lockdown rules, including those that tightly restricted gatherings among different households. Officials, including police, enforced those rules, and those who violated pandemic regulations could face penalties, including fines or even criminal proceedings.

Johnson initially denied the allegations, telling the House of Commons he was “repeatedly assured” that “no Covid rules have been broken.” He also said he himself broke no Covid-19 rules. The Cabinet Office launched an investigation, at Johnson’s request. Ultimately, the man Johnson picked to lead it had to step aside after it emerged that he might have hosted a party. Another top civil servant, Sue Gray, took over, initially investigating at least three events.

“Partygate” only got worse from there. More reports — and photos — emerged of parties. One, in May 2020, showed Johnson himself at a garden party, which he had to admit he attended, because pics. Johnson said he “believed implicitly” it was a work event.

Gray’s “Partygate” investigation ultimately expanded to include about 16 gatherings in total, examining events from May 2020 to April 2021. (The BBC has a good “Partygate” timeline to keep track of all these wine-and-cheese nights and “leaving dos.”) Meanwhile, as Gray was pursuing her probe, London’s Metropolitan Police launched their own criminal investigation into whether any parties at Downing Street violated Covid-19 regulations, which meant top officials, including Johnson himself, could potentially face penalties.

The police investigation — dubbed “Operation Hillman” — slowed down the release of Gray’s report, though she put out an update at the end of January. It lacked some specifics, but it was still pretty damning. It said some of the government’s behavior was “difficult to justify” against the backdrop of the pandemic, and it cited “failures of leadership and judgement in No. 10 and the Cabinet Office.”

The Met’s investigation showed exactly how. In April, the Metropolitan Police fined Johnson for attending his own surprise birthday party in June 2020. It was not a huge amount of money, but it made Johnson the first prime minister found to have broken the law while in office. Johnson told the House of Commons that “it did not occur to me, then or subsequently, that a gathering in the Cabinet Room just before a vital meeting on Covid strategy could amount to a breach of the rules.”

Ultimately, “Operation Hillman” made 126 referrals for penalties relating to eight events, involving 83 people total (about two dozen of whom faced multiple penalties). Johnson did not get fined again, but all in all, not a great look, especially before Gray issued her final 60-page “Partygate” report at the end of May.

The general gist of the report was the same as the truncated version — a profound failure of leadership, and a conclusion that many of the gatherings should not have happened based on Covid-19 rules. The report concluded that Johnson attended eight events himself. Other top officials in government organized or attended events. The report also featured some notable details, like staffers boozing until the wee morning hours, the appearance of a karaoke machine, and multiple examples of partiers showing “a lack of respect and poor treatment of security and cleaning staff.” At a Christmas party, a cleaner found red wine spilled along the wall and onto a bunch of photocopy paper.

Why now?

“Partygate” has been brewing for months, and some MPs had been calling for Johnson’s removal for weeks. But the crisis for Johnson came this weekend after the head of the 1922 Committee, which is the parliamentary group for Conservative members of Parliament, told Johnson it had reached the threshold of 54 letters (from about 15 percent of Conservative MPs) necessary to trigger a no-confidence vote in his leadership. Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee, had indicated some colleagues wanted to wait for the end of the Queen’s Jubilee over the weekend to send their letters, reported Politico.

And “Partygate” has refused to go away. Juicy details aside, the scandal is fairly straightforward: The people in charge of making and enforcing Covid-19 rules were themselves breaking them. Not only that, but much of the country was on extreme lockdown and couldn’t visit family or friends in the hospital, let alone host parties. One of the Downing Street parties investigated happened on April 16, the day before Queen Elizabeth had to attend her husband Prince Philip’s funeral alone.

“The overwhelming majority of discontent is tied narrowly and exclusively, I think, to Johnson’s conduct — and the lying, particularly, given all the sacrifices that people have had,” Allen said. “For many Conservative MPs, there’s going to be a constant refrain: ‘I couldn’t visit my dying wife, my dying mother, my dying child in hospital, and you were partying.’”

Johnson and his backers had used Russia’s war in Ukraine to try to tamp down some of the Partygate criticism, and make the case against a change in leadership during the crisis. The UK also faces the worst inflation crisis in 40 years, which has further dampened support for the prime minister. And in May, the Tories lost hundreds of seats in local elections, a sign that the electorate was moving against Johnson and his party. Other polling has shown pretty strong support for removing Johnson.

Johnson has always had a reputation for having a loose relationship with the truth, to put it mildly. Conservatives knew this, but they ultimately backed him in 2019 to be leader of the party because he was seen as the guy who could get Brexit done and rehabilitate the party, battered from Brexit divisions. He may not have been super popular, but he was at least more so than the very unpopular then-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

But Johnson’s Partygate antics, and most importantly, his blatant lying about Partygate, mean Johnson no longer appears to be the guy who can win elections for the Conservatives. “Most conservative MPs are basically thinking, ‘Well, am I safer with him or not?” Allen said.

A sign of Johnson’s undoing came during the Queen’s Jubilee, when a crowd booed Johnson while he was arriving at St. Paul’s Cathedral for a service. Politicians get unfriendly treatment all the time, but if anyone backs Johnson, it should be this crowd of royalists, which has a lot of overlap with the Conservatives. This was a bit like getting heckled on your home turf. It was a very public signal of the electorate’s mood — and it may have helped tip the balance against the prime minister.

What happens now?

Johnson, on paper, has won the no-confidence vote, and according to current rules, is safe from another party challenge for 12 months. But a 63-vote margin is not all that reassuring for Johnson — and it means his political woes are likely far from over.

Past Conservative prime ministers have also survived no-confidence votes, but they didn’t last in power all that much longer. Prime Minister Theresa May survived a no-confidence vote in 2018 by an even larger margin, but she only hung in for a few more months. Margaret Thatcher also faced a similar saga.

Johnson’s opponents have already seized on the prime minister’s weak showing. Labour’s Keir Starmer, the opposition leader, said the “choice was clearer than ever” between divided Tories and a united Labour party “with a plan to fix the cost of living crisis and restore trust in politics.“

Johnson and his defenders are already trying to spin this as a victory, but it will take time for things to settle to have a clear sense of what comes next.

And there are more political landmines along the way. The House of Commons’ Privileges Committee is investigating whether Johnson misled Parliament over Partygate. There are also two big by-elections, or special elections, coming up in June, for seats held by Conservatives who resigned because of separate sex scandals. If Conservatives lose both, that may be another sign that Johnson’s electoral utility is spent.

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