LONDON – Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson survived a no-confidence vote Monday called by rebel lawmakers from his ruling Conservative party who wanted to oust him as leader, in part over allegations of drunken government parties held during COVID-19 lockdowns.
Known for his ability to shrug off scandals, the charismatic leader has struggled to turn the page on revelations that he and his staff repeatedly held boozy parties that flouted the COVID-19 restrictions they imposed on others. Support among his fellow Conservative lawmakers has weakened as some see the leader, renowned for his ability to connect with voters, increasingly as a liability rather than an asset in elections.
Johnson’s critics failed to oust him in a 211-to-148 simple majority vote, a victory that means he can’t be challenged by his party for at least another year. However, the fact that the secret-ballot vote happened at all leaves him politically wounded. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, survived a no-confidence vote in 2018 but resigned six months later.
How lawmakers forced Monday’s vote
At least 54 Conservative party lawmakers wrote letters calling for a no-confidence vote in the prime minister. Those letters accounted for 15% of Tory parliamentarians, the threshold required for triggering such a vote.
The Tory rebels needed the backing of at least 180 Conservative lawmakers out of 359 to vote Johnson out. But since they failed to oust the prime minister, the rebels can’t challenge him again for another 12 months, under the current rules.
Ahead of the vote, Johnson’s team told his fellow Conservatives to slow down, warning that an internal clash would only help the Labour Party, the Conservatives’ main opposition. They pointed to ongoing crises such as the war in Ukraine, where the U.K. has been a leader in arming the Ukrainian army. They also urged lawmakers to focus on economic challenges, such as the rising cost of living for Britons.
The vote is a body shot to a bruised Johnson
Johnson’s brash style has found wide appeal in the U.K., but he’s now facing a lot of public anger about the way he and his staff behaved during Britain’s COVID lockdown.
A government report came out late last month that found a drunken culture at No. 10 Downing Street, describing parties in which one person vomited, red wine was splashed on the walls, and cleaning staff were abused. Johnson himself ended up being fined $62 for breaking one of his own laws.
The Partygate scandal has infuriated many Britons who followed the government’s rules, including those who were not able to say goodbye to loved ones in person. COVID-19 accounts for nearly 180,000 deaths in the U.K., according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
The prime minister’s behavior presented a stark contrast to the sacrifices born by others — including the queen, who famously set an example as she sat alone at her husband’s funeral, wearing a mask, in April of 2021. It later emerged that Johnson’s staff had held a raucous party on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral — an incident for which it later apologized.
At the queen’s recent celebration, actor Stephen Fry drew cheers and laughs at a large Buckingham Palace concert when he praised the monarch’s decades of service and fortitude — seemingly at the expense of Johnson, who was watching from the royal box.
“How many trees planted, ribbons cut, ships launched?” Fry asked, before landing his jab: “How many prime ministers tolerated? For that alone, no admiration is high enough.”
Even though Johnson has survived the no-confidence vote, his missteps are prompting something of a clinical review by his political allies. Within his Conservative Party, some see Johnson as damaged goods, questioning whether he can lead them into the next leadership election, which is expected in 2024.
Johnson still faces an investigation from the privileges committee into whether he misled parliament over Partygate. Additionally, there are two by-elections coming up for parliament seats that were previously held by members of the Conservative Party. If the party loses those seats, it would also not bode well for Johnson.
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