Boris Johnson narrowly wins a vote of confidence – The Economist – 06.06.22

The Conservative Party will not be able to move on, whatever the prime minister hopes


BORIS Johnson survives as Britain’s prime minister, by an uncomfortably narrow margin. In a confidence ballot conducted on June 6th, Conservative MPs voted by 211 to 148 for him to remain their party’s leader. That winning share—59%—is smaller than the margin of 63% that Theresa May secured in December 2018 as her premiership floundered. A little under six months later, she quit.


Mr Johnson declared his victory decisive, and showed no flicker of self-reflection or contrition. “We have a conclusion to something that’s been dragging on for far too long,” he said afterwards. In truth, the scale of insurrection has surprised Mr Johnson’s circle. Far from moving on, the result is paralysing. It leaves the prime minister badly wounded, with rivals jockeying to replace him, and a party at risk of civil war over its ideological direction.


The ballot was triggered after 54 Conservative MPs wrote to Sir Graham Brady, a Tory grandee, to say that they lacked confidence in Mr Johnson’s leadership. That passed a threshold specified in the party’s rules. Sir Graham publicly broke the news of the vote at dawn on June 6th, prompting a day of lobbying by Mr Johnson.


He reminded MPs of his proudest boasts—delivering Brexit, overseeing a covid-19 vaccine programme, aiding the Ukrainian fight—and dangled airy promises of lower taxes, deregulation and more government spending. Addressing them later in the afternoon, he assured them he could still win the next election, a feat that would produce an unprecedented fifth consecutive term in government.


Those efforts yielded a paltry return. The result is an especially underwhelming one given that Mr Johnson overhauled his inner sanctum in Downing Street just a few months ago in a bid to reboot his premiership. MPs remarked on a haphazard whipping operation, with waverers going uncontacted. Just 169 MPs felt able to declare publicly their support for Mr Johnson, according to a tally by Reuters.


Throughout the day, high-profile figures announced they had withdrawn their support for him. Among them were Jeremy Hunt, a former foreign secretary who once ran to lead the party; Douglas Ross, the leader of the party in Scotland; and Dehenna Davison, a 28-year-old MP who has become a flag-carrier for a new, northern generation of Tory MPs.


The wounding by his own party is the more remarkable given it is just two and a half years since Mr Johnson’s triumph in the general election in 2019, which granted him a working majority of 87, the largest since Margaret Thatcher’s third victory in 1987. With that power he started to remake British politics: wrenching the country out of the EU and imposing a new brand of big-state conservatism marked by high spending and hostility to checks on executive power.


Only last year, after the Tories had won a by-election in Hartlepool, a poor northern port town that had voted Labour for generations, Mr Johnson dared speak of a decade in office. How did it fall apart so fast? In part because Mr Johnson’s premiership was built on weak foundations. Unlike Mrs May, a lifelong servant of the party, he was elevated to the leadership as the last-ditch solution to a desperate situation.


Entrenched in a bitter civil war over Brexit, unable to deliver a deal in parliament, the Conservative Party was at risk of breaking in two and being swept away by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party on the left and Nigel Farage’s Brexit party on the radical right. Many MPs loathed Mr Johnson as a liar and a lightweight but backed him all the same, realising there was no alternative to his simple pitch: “Deliver Brexit, Unite the Party, Defeat Corbyn.”


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