Briefing

Understanding the Boris Johnson no-confidence vote

The embattled prime minister survived — but that doesn't mean his troubles are over

Fresh off the weekend's Platinum Jubilee excitement, public attention in the United Kingdom turned Monday toward embattled Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who survived a vote of no confidence led by disgruntled members of his own party. The final tally came in at 211 to 148. Here's everything you need to know:

Alright, back up — what happened here?

On Monday, Conservative Party official Graham Brady announced he had received letters from 54 of the 359 Tory MPs expressing a lack of faith in Johnson's leadership, thus triggering a vote of no confidence against the prime minister. The vote was held on Monday evening.

The expression of dissatisfaction with Johnson's leadership was anchored in a number of factors. For one thing, there are his contradicting sets of strengths and weaknesses, Mark Landler writes for The New York Times, citing Johnson's "rare political intuition" that is often "offset by breathtaking personal recklessness." But a number of catastrophic global events outside of Johnson's control — like the COVID-19 pandemic, rampant inflation, and a war in Ukraine — have also compounded his problems.

Nowhere, however, did it seem the prime minister suffered more than in the scandal that would eventually become known as "Partygate," in which Downing Street officials (including Johnson himself) were found violating their own stringent lockdown restrictions and taking part in social gatherings that were, at the time, forbidden. In November, when news of the festivities first broke, Johnson denied flouting any laws. But a police investigation later determined that wasn't true, and Johnson "himself was fined for attending his own birthday party in violation of the rules," Landler writes.

Though the war in Ukraine soon proved a welcome distraction from the Partygate press, it couldn't eclipse the scandal forever. During Jubilee celebrations on Friday, for example, Johnson and his wife were booed by the crowd. Monday's no-confidence vote was just the latest development in the saga.

"Tonight is a chance to end months of speculation and allow the government to draw a line and move on, delivering on the people's priorities," a government spokesperson said Monday, ahead of the vote. Johnson, meanwhile, "welcomes the opportunity to make his case to MPs and will remind them that when they're united and focused on the issues that matter to voters there is no more formidable political force."

How did the vote work?

The no-confidence vote was first triggered after 54 Tory lawmakers — more than the required 15 percent threshold — confidentially and formally requested one.

Then, on Monday, between 6 and 8 p.m. local time, MPs cast their vote as to whether or not they believed Johnson should remain in power. Notably, the vote itself was also secret, meaning "MPs who have stayed publicly loyal to Johnson" could still have voted to oust him — as long as they were "willing to lie about it afterward," CNN writes.

The final tally — 211 to 148 — fell short of the 180 votes needed to remove Johnson from office. Unless rules are changed (which is possible), MPs must now wait at least a year before holding another no-confidence vote, the Times adds.

Have votes like this happened before?

Absolutely. Former U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May survived a no-confidence vote in 2018, though she resigned several months later. Before that, in 1995, John Major prevailed in a leadership challenge he brought on himself, only to lose in the 1997 general election. And in 1990, Margaret Thatcher was effectively forced out after winning one no-confidence vote in 1989 but conceding in another a year later. 

Was Johnson's victory expected?

A number of political analysts on Monday predicted Johnson would succeed in fending off the ouster, but that "the vote could be remarkably close for a prime minister who helped his party win a landslide election in 2019," reports The Washington Post. His victory might also have something to do with the lack of a clear and obvious successor within his party, the Post adds.

What would have happened if Johnson lost?

In the event Johnson had lost the no-confidence vote, Conservative MPs would have begun the long process of replacing him. First, they would nominate and vote on candidates until there were just two possible options. Then they would open up the contest to "the nation's Conservative Party membership, which would vote to choose a new leader," writes The Wall Street Journal.

As for who might have stepped forward to replace Johnson, there was, of course, some speculation. Most frequently mentioned were Liz Truss, the "crowd-pleasing foreign secretary," and former Health Secretary and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Truss is popular with the base of the Conservative Party, the Times notes, and her profile received a boost when Johnson entrusted her with negotiating Northern Ireland's trade status with the EU. Hunt, on the other hand, would have offered "a cleaner break with Johnson's leadership and potentially a move back toward the center [...]." The Week U.K. had given Hunt 4/1 odds and Truss 7/1 odds in its evaluation of hypothetical contenders

Will all the drama be put to rest now that Johnson's won?

Not necessarily. For one thing, that there was a vote at all "could cripple [the prime minister] as an effective and credible leader," the Times notes. Both he and his party will nonetheless "struggle to rebuild their brand in the face of soaring inflation and diminished public trust," adds the Post.

And history isn't exactly on Johnson's side. May and Thatcher were each later forced out after winning no-confidence votes, and Major lost the election following his. For both Thatcher and May, a "key factor" in their downfall was the resignation of a number of cabinet ministers, and it's possible Johnson's team rebels similarly.

There's also always a chance Johnson cuts his losses and decides to leave office on his own, rather than suffer through the drama again.

What did European leaders have to say about all of this?

News of the no-confidence vote was initially "greeted with mixed feelings in the European legislature," where Johnson notably lacks allies, Politico reports. But despite the body's cool attitude towards the prime minister, some were concerned an "even pricklier" European Union partner would emerge in his place.

"Johnson's departure would be good news for anyone who cares about the relationship between the EU and the U.K," Jeroen Lenaers, member of the EU-U.K. Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, told Politico. That said, "we don't know who would replace him, and it could be better or worse." 

Now what?

Johnson's so-called victory marks "just the beginning of" his "fight for survival," argues The Atlantic, calling the prime minister "a populist who is no longer popular." But the problems Johnson faced were not exclusively of his own making — rather, "Johnson is just the latest prime minister to fail spectacularly at the job, though in his case, in uniquely grubby circumstances. He won't be the last." 

Be that as it may, "only Boris Johnson would try to carry on after a vote like this," Tom Peck wrote for The Independent. Indeed, "his salvation may have been the lack of an obvious successor," The Washington Post adds. "There remains an active open rebellion from within the party, with many top voices now on-the-record saying this prime minister is unfit to serve."

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