On 6 June, Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative Party held a vote of confidence of his leadership. It was universally predicted that he would prevail. He won the backing of 59% of Conservative Members of Parliament. Note that that figure is less than the 65% widely forecast.
A third of Conservative MPs are the payroll vote. They are cabinet ministers or junior ministers. They are paid a higher salary than ordinary MPs. It is assumed that their loyalty to the PM can be depended upon. However, as this was a vote by secret ballot, it is possible that some government ministers voted against Johnson despite appearing to support him.
This vote of confidence was held in Johnson because of growing disgruntlement in the party. He held parties during lockdown against prevailing laws. He continuously lied about these soirées. The police fined Johnson for breaking his own laws. His inattention to detail, his cavalier manner and his conceit are all playing badly. There is a cost of living crisis and galloping inflation. The United Kingdom has felt little benefit from Brexit. Illegal immigration is speeding up. Plans to have asylum seekers processed in Rwanda are proving contentious. Public services are under strain. His party is wearing and divided.
There was a four-day weekend 2-6 June to celebrate the Queen's Platinum Jubilee. That is because Elizabeth II has served as queen for 70 years. She is the longest reigning monarch in British history. For a few days, Johnson was out of the spotlight. When the Prime Minister arrived at St Paul's Cathedral for the service of thanksgiving, he was aggressively booed by royalists - these people are usually pro-Conservative.
54 letters arrived with the Chairman of the 1922 Committee by 6 June. These letters demanded a vote of confidence be held in the leader of the Conservative Party. 1922 Committee is a committee for Conservative backbenchers. 54 MPs means 15% of the parliamentary party. Conservative Party rules require that a vote of confidence be held in the leader when that threshold has been reached. The number 54 was reached the day after the Platinum Jubilee celebrations ended. This was much sooner than anticipated. The vote was held that same day.
People had been plotting against Johnson since January 2022. That was when the full horror of his lockdown party hypocrisy was known. But from the plotters' point of view the plot was half-cocked on 6 June. They needed more time. It is possible that Johnson loyalists put letters in demanding a vote of confidence. They wanted it held early in June before Johnson's situation deteriorated.
On 23 June, two by-elections will be held. The Conservatives will surely lose the one in Wakefield. This was a Labour held constituency from 1932 to 2019. It was captured by the Tories in the extraordinary circumstances of the Brexit election. However, the Conservative was sent to prison for sexual contact with a minor. Labour is now sure to retake it. The other by-election is in Tiverton and Honiton. This is a safe Tory seat. But if Labour were to take it, that would spell disaster for the Tories.
If a vote of confidence had taken place after 23 June and the Tories had just lost two by-elections, then Boris' fate would have been sealed.
BoJo's party is now 20% behind Labour in the opinion polls. On 5 May, it was only 6% behind. The Conservatives are sinking. This is worse than the usual midterm blues for the governing party. Johnson was an electoral asset. Tory MPs may now consider him a liability.
There have been five votes of confidence held in Tory history. In only one of those (Duncan Smith in 2003) was the leader ousted. Notably, in that election, Johnson vowed to vote for Duncan Smith before knifing him. Maggie Thatcher won her vote of confidence with 55% of the vote in 1990. However, when 45% of her own parliamentary party had turned against her, she was sunk. She was convinced by those whom she respected that she must stand down. Theresa May won a vote of confidence in 2018 with 65% of the vote. That is the second-highest percentage that a Tory leader has received. But within several months, she too resigned as party leader. John Major initiated a back me or sack me vote of confidence in June 1995. He won 66% of the vote, but was crushed in the general election two years later.
Before 1997 the Conservative Party rules said that a vote of confidence had to be a leadership contest. A challenger had to be forwarded by those seeking to oust the leader. Major and Thatcher had been helped by the relative unpopularity of their challengers.
No Tory leader who has faced a vote of confidence has lasted more than two years after it. The UK has another General Election in December 2024. It is doubtful that Johnson can hang on that long.
Johnson would like to put this all behind him. He says the vote of confidence was Westminster Village gossip. Now that the storm in a teacup is over, he must get on with the business of governing. But there is a House of Commons Standard and Privileges Committee investigation into his conduct. Bo Jo is seeking to have the ministerial code rewritten in such a way as to avoid the conclusion that he should resign for his unethical and mendacious conduct. Johnson wants the country to forget partygate. But this story is going to run and run for months. Some people are bored with it and others think it is a trifle. But there is fury about it among a large segment of the populace. Moreover, there are many storm clouds on the horizon. There was an Ukraine bounce for the Tory Party when the government was seen as robust in supporting Ukraine against the Russian illegal invasion. But Ukraine is losing salience as an issue.
Thatcher resigned because she was persuaded her legacy was safe. She was made to believe her party stood a better chance of winning the forthcoming election if she stepped aside. But Boris has no higher loyalty to the party or to the country. He is an egotist and a narcissist. He cares only about numero uno. Therefore, he will have to be crowbarred away from the door of Number 10 Downing Street.
The Tory Party rules forfend another leadership vote of confidence for a twelve month. The party could of course amend its rules, as some are calling for.
The outcome of this vote of confidence has been the worst for the party. Johnson's leadership is wounded, but not dead. He shall limp on. His authority is leeching away. It is a huge propaganda gift for Labour.
The author is a political analyst based in the UK. You can watch him on YouTube: George from Ireland