Boris Johnson Has “Bought Himself 12 Months” After Tories Sleepwalked Into A Confidence Vote
Boris Johnson has bought himself time after winning Monday's confidence vote but questions remain over his leadership (Alamy)
It was widely expected in the wake of the long Jubilee bank holiday weekend that enough letters of no confidence in Boris Johnson would have been submitted to trigger a vote on his leadership.
But without a coordinated rebellion driving the challenge there wasn't, and still isn’t, a clear consensus on the Prime Minister's future.
Johnson ultimately won the vote by a relatively narrow margin after Tory MPs voted by 211 to 148 to keep him in place as leader, and according to current party rules he will be immune from further challenge for another year.
Now even those who backed the Prime Minister in Monday’s vote warn that while Johnson was “bruised” rather than “mortally wounded” by the episode, he will still need to rebuild support and get people around him to deliver.
“He has bought himself 12 months, now he must use it,” one MP, who is on the government’s payroll as a PPS and voted in favour of Johnson, told PoliticsHome.
There is a sense among Tory MPs that they sleepwalked into Monday’s vote after letters of no confidence trickled into 1922 committee chair Sir Graham Brady’s inbox gradually over the course of the last scandal-ridden six months.
One MP likened the confirmation that a vote would be held to the scene in cult film Withnail and I, where the titular characters stand in the rain and declare they have “gone on holiday by mistake”. Instead it was the Tory party who “held a confidence vote by mistake”.
Because the disparate rebellion against Johnson had no central organisers or ringleaders, the government’s whipping operation failed to predict the scale of opposition to Johnson among his own MPs, with 41% of them ending up voting that they had no confidence in their leader.
According to a Tory insider with knowledge of the government’s whipping operation, at 3pm on Monday, just a few hours before the ballot opened, the whips’ office only had around 70 names of MPs they believed were planning to vote against Johnson.
On a spreadsheet predicting how MPs would vote, entries alongside several names remained empty.
As a result, Downing Street failed to manage expectations of the vote’s outcome. It was initially briefed to reporters that keeping the number of rebels below 100 could be considered a success, but in the end, 148 MPs opposed the Prime Minister.
The morning after the vote Johnson's official spokesman said he "has a mandate to continue and focus on the issues that matter to the public,” while the Prime Minister himself vowed to “bash on” in the face of internal opposition.With a severely weakened leader still in place, there have been questions within the party over whether those determined to replace Johnson should have submitted letters without greater certainty that their side was able to win the vote.
Tory veteran David Davis told The Times that the result was “possibly the worst outcome, neither decisive nor supportive”.
But according to one government special adviser, MPs known to be against Johnson felt they had little control over whether or not a vote would be held, and chose not to rescind their letters as a result.
“They said they thought it would hit that number organically anyway, so there was no point,” the adviser told PoliticsHome.
Since Johnson survived Monday’s challenge, the mood among the rebels has been subdued and without obvious appetite for a renewed offensive.
A former Number 10 adviser now working elsewhere in Parliament told PoliticsHome the general consensus seems to be: “Well, what happens now?"
Leadership rival Jeremy Hunt, who issued an explosive indictment of Johnson ahead of the vote, has since gone to ground, and there have been no further ministerial resignations.
Johnson is safe in the short-term, and while his long-term prospects of leading the Conservative into another election are still in question, there is good will among even those who didn’t back him for things to be turned around.
John Penrose, who dramatically resigned as the PM’s anti-corruption chief this week, told PoliticsHome’s The Rundown podcast that he still wanted Johnson to succeed in delivering on the government’s programme.
“The ‘Levelling Up’ agenda remains popular and most of us find on the doorsteps that actually the ideas in the manifesto are still moving minds and still moving spirits and still enthusing people,” he said.
Another MP who voted against Johnson agreed “we have to draw a line” and renew faith in the Prime Minister.
“We're democratically elected politicians, we had a vote, the prime minister won by a clear majority,” they explained. “We have to respect that and give him the chance to turn things around.”
But if MPs were looking for a more focused Johnson, they were unlikely to be convinced by his meandering speech in Blackpool on Thursday.
“If what one wants is planned, strategic, coherent governance, it is unlikely to come from Boris Johnson, who is a mixture of brilliance and flaws,” former Tory MP and editor of the ConservativeHome website Paul Goodman told PoliticsHome. He believes Johnson will be forced out in one way or another within a year.
“He just does not play by the rules everyone else plays by. So it's no good anyone asking him to, because they know he won't. And he knows that they know he won’t,” Goodman added.
The government has until the end of 2024 to call the next election, leading one Tory insider to believe that there was too much time until going to the polls for the PM to feel safe.
“If the vote had been closer then MPs might have said let’s leave him to get on with it, but now we are going to have a summer of problems, economic issues, further [issues with] cost of living,” they explained.
“This will bubble up again as it has done now, and you’ll see MPs start to get itchy feet and want to ditch him.”
They suspected the calculation on most MPs' minds would now be “either we stick with him and lose the next election, or we change leader and give ourselves a chance of winning”.
“In that case, which option are MPs going to take?" they asked.
The government PPS, who foresaw a year’s grace period for Johnson, agreed his fate now rested on “the E-word; the economy”.
While they felt the public will eventually forget about partygate, the scandal which triggered Monday’s vote in the first place, people would be less forgiving about the cost of living crisis.
But they were confident that Johnson “will drag it back” and regain the support of his party.
“In the future people will see this as a low point before everything ticks back up,” they added.
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