Boris Johnson Survives Vote to Oust Him as British Prime Minister, but His Political Future Remains Uncertain

Though the final tally put Johnson 31 votes above the threshold required to remain in office, history suggests that the size of the rebellion against him may ultimately make his position untenable

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson. Photo: A Images via Getty

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is fighting for his political survival even after winning a vote of confidence by his own party's Members of Parliament on Monday.

The Conservative Party leader, 57, won 211 out of a possible 359 votes in an anonymous ballot in London, which was held after an unknown number of Conservative MPs submitted letters stating they could no longer trust him to effectively run the U.K. government.

It means that Johnson now faces the prospect of governing the U.K. without the support of a large percentage of his own parliamentary party — a situation that ultimately led to the downfall of Conservative governments helmed by Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Theresa May.

A placard calling on Boris Johnson to resign is seen during the demonstration. Anti Boris Johnson protesters gathered outside Downing Street ahead of the planned publication of the Sue Gray report, as the Metropolitan Police concludes its investigation of the Partygate scandal with just one fine for the Prime Minister.
A placard calling on Boris Johnson to resign. Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty

Despite this, Johnson was in typical bullish mood after the result was announced around 3 p.m. EDT.

"I think it's an extremely good, positive, conclusive, decisive result which enables us to move on and unite and focus," Johnson told the BBC. "What we need to do now is come together as a government, as a party, and that is exactly what we now can do."

The announcement of the confidence vote was made by leading backbench Conservative MP Sir Graham Brady on Monday morning, who stated that the threshold to trigger a leadership ballot under the rules of Conservative Party had been reached. This means that at least 54 Tory MPs submitted letters of no confidence to Brady in private.

After the prime minister earned 31 votes above the 180-vote threshold required to survive the takedown, Brady said, "I can therefore announce that the parliamentary party does have confidence."

But while Johnson's win technically keeps him safe, the sheer size of the rebellion against him may ultimately make his position untenable — as it did with May, his predecessor, who was forced out of Downing Street within seven months of winning her own confidence vote.

May and Thatcher both had a smaller percentage of rebels than Johnson when they were forced to resign, putting a dark cloud over Johnson's ministry.

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Johnson's confidence vote was largely prompted by the Covid-19 "Partygate" scandal, where 16 social gatherings were found to have taken place in Downing Street during a 20-month period of various levels of COVID-related lockdowns in England.

In April, Johnson was fined by the Metropolitan Police for the parties, becoming the first U.K. Prime Minister in history to be officially found to have broken the law.

Prime Minister of Great Britain Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds
Boris Johnson and Carrie Johnson. Stefan Rousseau/WPA Pool/Getty

In a statement shared on April 12, Johnson said he "received a fixed penalty notice from the Metropolitan Police relating to an event in Downing Street on 19th June 2020," adding that he paid the fine "immediately" and issued an apology.

"In a spirit of openness and humility, I want to be completely clear about what happened on that date," he continued, noting the eight meetings he oversaw at Downing Street (a.k.a. Number 10) that day, which included a committee sit-down about a plan for COVID-19. Johnson, 57, added that he left Downing Street for several hours to visit a school in Hemel Hempstead.

"And amongst all these engagements, on a day that happened to be my birthday, there was a brief gathering in the Cabinet Room shortly after 2pm, lasting for less than 10 minutes, during which people I work with kindly passed on their good wishes," he explained.

In a separate development, senior British civil servant Sue Gray, who oversees ethics inquiries for the British government, published a highly critical report into the Downing Street parties on May 25 — including one that continued until 4am on the eve of the funeral of Prince Philip in Windsor Castle.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Queen Elizabeth II arrive at a drinks reception for Queen Elizabeth II and G7 leaders at The Eden Project during the G7 Summit on June 11, 2021 in St Austell, Cornwall, England.
Boris Johnson and Queen Elizabeth. Jack Hill/WPA Pool/Getty Images

"Against the backdrop of the pandemic, when the Government was asking citizens to accept far-reaching restrictions on their lives, some of the behavior surrounding these gatherings is difficult to justify," Gray said in the report.

"At least some of the gatherings in question represent a serious failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of Government but also of the standards expected of the entire British population at the time."

After Gray's findings were published, Johnson made a statement at the House of Commons, telling members of Parliament, "I am humbled and I have learned a lesson."

His political opponents, however, are already suggesting that his time inside Downing Street is now drawing to a close.

Opposition Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer told LBC Radio on Monday that that the confidence vote represented "the beginning of the end" for Johnson, adding that the Tory MPs had "to show some leadership and vote against the prime minister" in the national interest.

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey tweeted, "It's judgment day for Conservative MPs and their sleaze-ridden prime minister.

"If they fail to sack Boris Johnson, it will be an insult to all those who made sacrifices and suffered while he partied."

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