LONDON — Boris Johnson has survived a challenge to his leadership after Tory MPs failed to oust him in a dramatic internal vote Monday night.
The British prime minister, facing a mounting rebellion over the so-called Partygate scandal, won a Conservative Party confidence vote triggered after sufficient Tory MPs turned against him to initiate the party’s process for challenging its leaders.
Johnson won by 211 votes to 148 in the secret ballot of Tory MPs. The result means he retains the confidence of 59 percent of his parliamentary party.
In theory, under existing Tory party rules, Johnson now cannot face another leadership challenge for a further 12 months. But in practice, he remains under severe pressure, with Tory backbench chief Graham Brady confirming that “it’s possible for rules to be changed” should there be sufficient desire among Tory MPs in the weeks ahead.
The split in favor of Johnson is even worse than the result achieved by former PM Theresa May in 2018, when deep divisions over her approach to Brexit led to a confidence vote among her MPs. On that occasion, almost two-thirds of Tory MPs — 63 percent — voted to keep May in power, but she was still forced to resign less than six months later.
Even so, a senior party official had already indicated before the vote took place that the prime minister would continue in his role given any result short of outright defeat.
“One vote is a win,” the senior Tory told journalists. “At the end of the day, one side goes home victorious.”
The vote was called early Monday morning after Brady, who chairs the so-called 1922 committee of backbench Tory MPs, confirmed he had received letters of no confidence from at least 15 percent of Johnson’s MPs — the threshold required to trigger a formal vote.
Johnson’s popularity has waned dramatically after his premiership was engulfed by the Partygate scandal, with revelations of multiple illegal parties held by government staff in Downing Street during COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.
Addressing MPs in a closed-door meeting ahead of the vote, Johnson urged his fellow Conservatives to save his job and “refuse to dance to the tune of the media,” officials said.
“There have been bumpy times before. I can rebuild trust,” Johnson added.
The announcement that a vote was to take place triggered a civil war in the Tory ranks, as MPs spent Monday publicly declaring whether they still supported Johnson.
His former leadership rival, Jeremy Hunt — the bookies’ favorite to succeed him — was first out of the blocks with an apparent leadership bid.
“Today’s decision is change or lose,” Hunt wrote in a series of critical tweets. “I will be voting for change.” Hunt faced stinging criticism from Nadine Dorries, a close Johnson ally, who attacked Hunt’s record in government during six years as health secretary.
Johnson also faced the resignation of his anti-corruption czar, John Penrose, who said it was “clear” the prime minister had broken the written code that governs ministerial conduct and should resign.
Monday evening then saw the leader of Johnson’s party in Scotland also turn on the prime minister — again.
Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross confirmed before the ballot he would vote to oust Johnson, bringing full circle a sequence of events that saw Ross initially call for Johnson’s resignation in January, reverse that call in March due to the war in Ukraine, and then declare in May that the prime minister should step down only when the war is over.
Eleni Courea contributed reporting.