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Boris Johnson Clings to Power, But Question Is for How Long

·5 min read

(Bloomberg) -- Boris Johnson sought to draw a line under the controversy that’s been threatening his leadership, though the scale of a mutiny against the British prime minister suggests his days may be numbered.

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The deep discontent within his Conservative Party was laid bare on Monday evening, when 211 Tory MPs backed Johnson in a confidence motion -- but 148 voted against him. The rebellion was bigger than the one suffered by predecessor Theresa May, who was ousted as premier six months later after failing to unite the party over leaving the European Union.

https://t.co/65dXd9CRkI pic.twitter.com/2E8k1CowHq

— Bloomberg UK (@BloombergUK) June 6, 2022

The pound briefly dropped to a two-week low Tuesday before paring declines to trade 0.2% weaker at $1.2512 as of 11:03 a.m. in London, as traders expect the political turmoil to continue and the country faces a potential recession.

Pressure has been building on Johnson for weeks over so-called “partygate,” events in Downing Street during the pandemic, for which the 57-year-old premier received a police fine. A report by senior civil servant Sue Gray found many of them shouldn’t have been allowed. But the malaise goes far beyond the illegal gatherings and has been increasing for months. One MP said after the vote, nothing is imminent, but ultimately Johnson is finished.

Johnson steered the party to its biggest general election win in more than three decades in 2019, delivered Brexit and then after a chaotic start to the handling of Covid-19 managed to make the UK a trailblazer for vaccinations. More recently, though, many within his party have been frustrated at having to defend controversial policies only for the government to then U-turn.

Tory Anger

A windfall tax on energy firms was proposed by the opposition Labour Party and rejected by Johnson before he later adopted the idea. Increases in government spending have angered some Conservatives, while others are concerned his plan to rip up the Brexit deal over Northern Ireland will see their party break international law.

Read More: Boris Johnson’s Hollow Win Shows Civil War Raging in Tory Party

Johnson led a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday in a bid to turn the page on the divisive vote, urging ministers to “come forward” with ways to cut costs and show voters the government is delivering on priorities including reducing health care backlogs.

“We’ve got to make sure that as we spend, make these colossal investments -- which I repeat I think is the morally and economically the right thing to do -- we’ve got to get value out of it,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure people see that they are getting the services they need when they want.”

He spent Monday pleading with MPs to back him, with loyal lieutenants defending him in broadcast interviews. He also attempted to appease his critics within the party by promising tax cuts.

Diminished Authority

The question is now much authority Johnson can continue to command, according to John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. “It’s not a given that Johnson will lead the party into the next election,” he said. “The result is bad enough to raise questions about the long-term future of his leadership.”

Recent history suggests Johnson’s time in office could come to an end before he gets a chance to fight the next election, currently scheduled for 2024. In a vote over her Brexit policy, May survived a confidence vote with a majority of 83 in December 2018. That compares with 63 for Johnson.

There’s no doubt the vote was a blow. It was triggered by at least 15% of Conservative MPs submitting letters of no confidence in their leader. In the end, 41% of MPs rebelled.

Even the Tory-leaning Daily Telegraph newspaper, the prime minister’s former employer, called the result a “hollow” victory that “tears the Tories apart.”

Former Conservative leader William Hague wrote in the Times that the vote was “devastating” and “the worst possible result from the Conservative Party’s point of view.”

Read more: Tory Press Makes Grim Reading for Boris Johnson After Narrow Win

Under current rules, Tory MPs would not be allowed to hold another confidence vote for a year. However, it would be possible to change the rules in order to hold another vote sooner.

“We now know that 40% of his MPs don’t even think he should be prime minister,” said Alice Lilly, senior researcher at the Institute for Government. “How on earth is the government actually going to get anything done? There’s absolutely no way this has drawn a line under it.”

At a regular briefing on Tuesday, Johnson’s spokesman pushed back on reports that the prime minister is planning a cabinet reshuffle to exert his authority following the vote. There are “no plans currently” to do so, spokesman Max Blain told reporters.

Criticism

On Monday, former minister Jesse Norman published a letter to Johnson excoriating the prime minister and accusing him of “lacking a sense of mission.” John Penrose, who Johnson appointed to lead on his anti-corruption agenda, also resigned his position. He said Johnson had broken the country’s ministerial code, which would normally lead to resignation.

Tory fears that Johnson could cost them the next election will have been heightened by new polling suggesting the party is facing defeat in two special votes on June 23.

The seat in Wakefield is among the historically Labour-voting districts in northern England -- the so-called Red Wall -- whose defections helped deliver the huge House of Commons majority for the Tories in 2019. On Sunday, pollster J.L. Partners put Labour 20 points ahead.

The Conservatives are also facing humiliation in a separate by-election in Tiverton and Honiton in southwest England. Bookmakers put the Liberal Democrats as favorites to take the Tory stronghold. Both votes were triggered by Tory MPs stepping down over separate sex scandals.

(Updates with market reaction in third paragraph, Johnson comment in eighth)

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