On June 6, Prime Minister Boris Johnson survived a vote of no confidence from the Parliamentary Conservative Party. The vote was triggered by 15 percent of Tory Members of Parliament (MPs) writing to the chair of the 1922 Committee, which represents backbenchers. Thus far, six of the last nine leaders of the Tory Party have faced a leadership challenge of some sort while in office. Yet, while Johnson has joined the list of leaders who survived such a vote, the results of the ballot show that his leadership of the party in the long term remains precarious.
How bad were the results?
While the relatively low threshold for a vote means Johnson is far from the first leader to face a challenge, the numbers revealed on June 6 are highly concerning for the Tory leader. With only 211 MPs supporting him against 148 opposed to his leadership, Johnson did worse in percentage terms than his predecessors Margaret Thatcher, John Major, and Theresa May.
Johnson’s public standing is no better. According to polling from Ipsos-Mori, Johnson’s net satisfaction score (-36) is near identical to Major’s (-37) and Thatcher’s (-36) at the time of challenges to their leadership. Perhaps most alarmingly for Johnson, given his role in bringing down his predecessor Theresa May’s premiership, is that his current ratings are notably worse than when May faced a vote of no confidence in 2018 (-22).
According to one pollster, if Tory MPs had represented the voters’ views in the vote the result would have been 101 confidence, 212 no confidence, 46 abstain. If the public had their way, in other words, Johnson would already be on his way out of office.
Is Johnson now safe?
That Johnson remains in office has less to do with public popularity than with the lack of obvious alternatives to his leadership. In 1990, Thatcher faced a leadership contest from a charismatic and well ideologically defined competitor, Michael Heseltine. Likewise, May faced a clear antagonist in Johnson and the ‘hard Brexiteer’ wing of the party. Conversely, Johnson’s position is more like that of Major who, unlike Thatcher and May, made it to the next election before losing office.
Technically, Johnson’s victory also protects him from another vote for twelve months. However, Theresa May found the rules of the 1922 Committee can be changed to hold another vote in less than a year, though there is no trigger for such a rule change – leaving it at the discretion of the Committee’s executive. This would likely only occur if Johnson’s popularity with the public and the party slips even further into the negative.
Can anyone else remove Johnson?
There are other ways to remove an unpopular Prime Minister, such as a vote of no confidence in Parliament. However, this would require Tory MPs to cooperate with opposition parties to collapse the government, likely leading to an early election and a heavy loss of seats for the Conservatives – this option is therefore unlikely.
A more plausible scenario would be a Cabinet coup against Johnson. The PM has carefully selected ministers who owe him personal loyalty and whose careers would likely be damaged by his exit. Yet, beyond a certain point, even the most loyal of colleagues will conclude that their self-interest is served by a new leader more likely to win the next election. While the Cabinet has no formal power to remove Johnson, a coordinated defection would leave his position untenable – just as it did for Thatcher in 1990.
Moving to prevent these outcomes may cause yet more problems for the PM, however. Allies are urging Johnson to offer an olive branch to opponents in the party by appointing critics, such as former health minister Jeremy Hunt, to cabinet positions. But should Johnson demote long-term loyalists in favour of critics, this runs the risk of only accelerating such a ‘palace coup.’
What does this mean for Britain?
YouGov favourability ratings show that the PM is unpopular by -45 net, but only marginally more so than his party (-38 net). Therefore, the party desperately needs to generate a legislative record that it can run on in the next election, whoever leads the party into it.
Yet, in the context of the divisions demonstrated by the confidence vote, it is highly unclear whether passing the bulk of the 38 bills outlined in the most recent Queen’s Speech can be achieved. While the 148 MPs opposed to Johnson is by no means a cohesive bloc, it is four times the threshold for defeating the government in the House of Commons. While the government can thus exercise discipline to get through key votes, we should expect to see many more concessions in committee and at the report stages.
The vote of no confidence was a victory for Johnson but left his leadership weaker, the Conservative party more divided and unpopular in the country. In short, the long-term future of Johnson’s agenda remains hanging in the balance.