Yesterday evening, Boris Johnson survived a “No Confidence” vote from his own MPs by 211 votes to 148. This meant that 41% of his own MPs declared no confidence in him. However, in fact, he fare worse than that. Between 160-170 MPs are on the government payroll as ministers/aides. It’s possible that some of these used the cover of secrecy to vote against their boss but the normal convention is that those who hold office remain loyal unless and until they resign. This means that at best, only 50 backbench MPS supported their leader. 74% of Conservative Backbenchers voted no confidence in him.
So, what does the future hold for the Prime Minister and the Government? Most people now seem to be predicting that whilst he has survived this time, he is fatally wounded and that as with Theresa May before him, surviving the no confidence motion merely delays rather than averts his imminent departure.
It is also possible that Johnson will seek to avert the humiliation of being forced out of office and attempt to go at a time of his own choosing rather than via another confidence vote in a year’s time.
What might cause Boris to hang on?
I must admit that it’s not a good idea to rely on my actual predictions. I personally expected Boris to look for an opportunity to step down after the pandemic. I do think that his own brush with COVID affected his health. Also, for all sorts of reasons I don’t think he really has the stomach for the day to day drag of governing, as much as he enjoys winning and having power. However, I think that the opportunity for him to resign with grace “ due to health reasons” as the Prime Minister who got Brexit done and led the country through the pandemic has now gone. So why didn’t he take it?
I think that the answer can be seen by comparison with a predecessor. You may remember that for much of his first term in office, Tony Blair didn’t seem to really know what to do with his huge majority. Then he became focused on a cause, a personal mission. As is often the case for leaders, it was a foreign policy one. Blair became committed to the cause of supporting George Bush in the war on Terror. He fully believed in the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns.
Similarly, whilst Boris didn’t really have much to motivate him beyond “Get Brexit Done” nor indeed a mandate beyond that given the narrow focus of the 2019 election, something changed in February this year and that something was Ukraine. Boris now has a mission, a cause, not just in supporting Zelenski but in seeking to rally the Western World against the new Russian threat. I think he genuinely believes in this and I think he is enjoying being Prime Minister – not the drag of domestic stuff or the Newspapers -but the opportunity to be out and about on the World Stage (and remember that his longest held ambition was to be “world king”).
For this reason, I think that if he is prised away from office, it is likely to be with great reluctance.
Why might Boris choose to go early?
If Boris does decide to go early then I suspect that there will be two factors at work. First, there are the ambitions that his wife holds. However, she too may decide that the newspaper headlines are not worth it and persuade him that the game is up.
Secondly, Boris loves winning. So, if he concludes that he is unlikely to win in 2024 then he might decide to bow out. I expect him to reflect not on mid term bye-election defeats but how the polls are looking in early 2023. If things seem to be moving back in his favour, he may conclude that he can make a comeback. Remember, that Margaret Thatcher hit depths of unpopularity mid-term before winning comfortable landslide victories in 1983 and 1987. Of course, he will probably need a significant turning point to come through such as a Ukrainian victory or an improvement in the economic picture.
Other factors to consider
Of course, things may well be taken out of Boris’ hands if he discovers that his MPS have turned completely against him, though don’t underestimate his ability to survive. After all, he started out as Prime Minister back in 2019 without a majority and with most of his own party either against him or reluctantly supporting him. He may well relish a bit of mischief making. Indeed, setting himself up as the plucky underdog against the establishment, in Government but acting as if in opposition may well work for him.
Whilst Boris doesn’t command the confidence of his backbench MPs, he does has an advantage over Theresa May’s position. For her, it wasn’t merely about popularity and electability but that she simply could not bring together a majority behind her primary policy -the Brexit deal. Whilst Tory MPs are likely to be emboldened now in resisting any further tax increases, that’s more a problem for the Chancellor than the Prime Minister. Their opposition to him is personal rather than about policy. So, we shouldn’t automatically expect him to struggle in getting his business through the House of Commons.
I think it’s a mistake to assume that he is protected by the lack of an obvious successor. Future leaders have often emerged seemingly from nowhere -think Major in 1990, or Cameron benefitting from the surprise factor of his 2005 conference speech. It wasn’t a done deal that Boris could replace May in 2019. In fact many considered him a busted flush, his ability to reach beyond core Tory support seen as contaminated by Brexit and his failed time at the Foreign Office. He also was unpopular with MPs. Indeed on the rare occasion when an obvious successor has been in place whether Brown for Blair in 2007 or indeed May for Cameron in 2016, things have not always worked out too well.
In many respects, a lot depends on events over the next year and also the mood of Conservative MPs. If one of the big office holders is forced out or decides to walk, we could see a younger, less well known MP promoted into one of the great offices of state and from there build their profile. Watch out for Kemi Badenoch. Alternatively, MPs may decide that the next election is one to lose anyway and so look for a caretaker leader who will minimise losses before skipping a generation in opposition. Such a scenario would probably suit someone like Ben Wallace.
So how did we end up here?
Of course, the question is really how did Boris Johnson throw away the advantage of winning a landslide victory back in 2019.The answer is I believe seen in his character. In essence the Tories chose him in 2019 to be everything that Theresa May was not. He had charisma, he wasn’t a detail man, he wouldn’t micromanage. He was all about the big picture. He enjoyed election campaigning. He was the cavalier to her roundhead.
All of those things worked in his favour when it came to winning an election and getting a Brexit deal ratified. Sunny optimism and a “don’t worry about the detail” attitude was enough. Of course, the detail came back to bite him. It came back when his Brexit deal started to unravel causing problems in Northern Ireland. It came back when his Home Secretary used the opportunity of “getting back control of our borders” to push through a hard line, unforgiving immigration points system. And of course it came back to bite him when a lack of grasp of detail led him to preside over a culture at No 10 where the COVID rules were repeatedly broken.
In the end though, we cannot ignore the point that it has always been about character. I have generally in pastoral ministry attempted to avoid taking party political sides or stating how I would vote. However, in 2019, I came sadly to the conclusion that I could not support either of the main options and said so publicly. I could not support Jeremy Corbyn, whatever I thought of his specific policies due to his association with terrorists and antisemitism. Nor though could I support a Prime Minister with a track record of lies, threats and unfaithfulness. It has always been my view that Boris Johnson was wholly unsuited to public office. It gives me no pleasure to have been proved right.
In the end though, Conservative and Labour MPs and activists cannot escape the fact that they put in office, campaigned for and kept in office two men completely, morally unsuitable for their roles. This is to their shame. We must also therefore reflect on a political system that has allowed this to happen.
It looks like we are in for an interesting few years ahead of us politically. That may not be good for the country. It is perhaps impossible to tell whether Boris will survive, who will replace him when he goes and whether this will lead to a change of government. However, we can and should pray that when the time comes that he is replaced by someone who whatever their political position shows integrity and honour.
 I am sticking purely with Theresa May for comparison. Whilst people have also gone back to Margaret Thatcher and John Major for precedent, it is worth remembering that their leadership was contested under different rules where they faced specific leadership candidates rather than confidence votes. Indeed, whilst Thatcher won on the first round of the leadership ballot in 1990, she failed to win by the majority that the rules required in order to retain her leadership.