British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will face a no-confidence vote Monday that could oust him from power, as discontent with his rule finally threatens to topple a politician who has often seemed invincible despite many scandals.
The charismatic leader renowned for his ability to connect with voters has recently struggled to turn the page on revelations that he and his staff repeatedly held boozy parties that flouted the COVID-19 restrictions they imposed on others.
Previous prime ministers who survived no-confidence votes emerged severely weakened. Theresa May, for instance, won one in 2018 but never regained her authority and resigned within months.
Still, with no clear front-runner to succeed Johnson, most political observers think he will defeat the challenge and remain prime minister. But the fact that enough lawmakers are demanding a vote represents a watershed moment for him — and a narrow victory would leave him a hobbled leader whose days are likely numbered. It is also a sign of deep Conservative divisions, less than three years after Johnson led the party to its biggest election victory in decades.
Since then, Johnson has led Britain out of the European Union and through a pandemic, both of which have shaken the U.K. socially and economically. The vote comes as Johnson’s government is under intense pressure to ease the pain of skyrocketing energy and food bills.
Conservative Party official Graham Brady announced Monday that he had received letters calling for a no-confidence vote from at least 54 Tory legislators, enough to trigger the measure under party rules. He said the vote would take place in the House of Commons on Monday evening, with the result expected later in the night.
Lawmakers will file into a wood-paneled room to cast their paper ballots and will have to hand over their phones to ensure secrecy. To remain in office, Johnson needs to win the backing of a simple majority of the 359 Conservative lawmakers. If he doesn’t, the party will choose a new leader, who will also become prime minister.
Johnson’s Downing Street office said the prime minister welcomed the vote as “a chance to end months of speculation and allow the government to draw a line and move on, delivering on the people’s priorities.”
Discontent that has been building for months erupted after a 10-day parliamentary break that included a long weekend of celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee. For many, the four-day holiday was a chance to relax — but there was no respite for Johnson, who was booed by some onlookers as he arrived for a service in the queen’s honor at St. Paul’s Cathedral on Friday.
Brady said some lawmakers who submitted no-confidence letters had asked for them to be held back until after the Jubilee weekend — but even without counting those, the threshold was still reached on Sunday.
Previous prime ministers who survived no-confidence votes emerged severely weakened. Theresa May, for instance, won one in 2018 but never regained her authority and resigned within months, sparking a leadership contest that was won by Johnson.
His selection in July 2019 capped a rollercoaster journey to the top. He had held major offices, including London mayor and U.K. foreign secretary, but also spent periods on the political sidelines after self-inflicted gaffes. He kept bouncing back, showing an uncommon ability to shrug off scandal and connect with voters that, for many Conservatives, overshadowed doubts about his ethics or judgment.
But concerns came to a head after an investigator’s report late last month that slammed a culture of rule-breaking inside the prime minister’s office in a scandal known as “partygate".
Civil service investigator Sue Gray described alcohol-fueled bashes held by Downing Street staff members in 2020 and 2021 when pandemic restrictions prevented U.K. residents from socializing or even visiting dying relatives.
Gray said the “senior leadership team” must bear responsibility for “failures of leadership and judgment.”
Johnson also was fined 50 pounds ($63) by police for attending one party, making him the first prime minister sanctioned for breaking the law while in office.
The prime minister said he was “humbled” and took “full responsibility” — but insisted he would not resign. He urged Britons to “move on” and focus on righting the battered economy and helping Ukraine defend itself against a Russian invasion.
But a growing number of Conservatives feel that Johnson is now a liability who will doom them to defeat at the next election, which must be held by 2024.
“Today’s decision is change or lose,” said Jeremy Hunt, who ran against Johnson for the Conservative leadership in 2019 but has largely refrained from criticizing him since. “I will be voting for change.”
Lawmaker Jesse Norman, a longtime Johnson supporter, said Monday that the prime minister had “presided over a culture of casual law-breaking” and had left the government “adrift and distracted.”
“I am afraid I can see no circumstances in which I could serve in a government led by you,” Norman wrote in a letter published on social media.
Another Tory legislator, John Penrose, quit Monday as the prime minister’s “anticorruption champion,” saying Johnson had breached the government code of conduct with the behavior revealed by partygate.
But senior ministers offered messages of support for Johnson — including some who would be likely to run in the Conservative leadership contest that would be triggered if he is ousted.
“The Prime Minister has my 100% backing in today’s vote and I strongly encourage colleagues to support him,” Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, one of the favorites to succeed Johnson, wrote in a tweet.
If he wins Monday’s vote, Johnson is likely to face more pressure. The war in Ukraine, a simmering post-Brexit feud with the EU and soaring inflation are all weighing on the government, and the Conservatives could lose special elections later this month for two parliamentary districts, called when incumbent Tory lawmakers were forced out by sex scandals.
Johnson tried to focus on those broader issues, noting that he spoke Monday to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He has been a vocal supporter of Ukraine’s cause, a stance shared by his possible successors.
Cabinet minister Steve Barclay, a Johnson ally, said toppling the leader now would be “indefensible.”
“The problems we face aren’t easy to solve” but Conservatives have the right plan to tackle them, he wrote on the Conservative Home website.
“To disrupt that progress now would be inexcusable to many who lent their vote to us for the first time at the last general election, and who want to see our prime minister deliver the changes promised for their communities.”