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Tory Rebels Face Battle to Oust Johnson and Next Move Is Tricky

·4 min read

(Bloomberg) -- Boris Johnson said Wednesday “nothing and no one” will stop him carrying on as British prime minister. Such bullishness so soon after rebels in his Conservative Party narrowly failed to oust him might seem misplaced, but it underscores the obstacles they face as they try to finish the job.

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From the timing of the confidence vote to the lack of unity among his critics, several factors worked in Johnson’s favor as he emerged wounded but still in charge on Monday night. Under current Tory rules, he is immune from another confidence vote for 12 months, limiting the options for the plotters.

Handed breathing space as the rebels regroup, Westminster is rife with chatter that Johnson will bring forward an expected ministerial reshuffle to try to stamp his authority on the party.

As both sides war-game their next steps, here are three ways the rebels could force Johnson’s hand:

Rebels Go on Strike

Johnson’s allies are drawing comfort from the fact that the 148 who voted against Johnson come from different wings of the party and are concerned about different aspects of his leadership. It makes it difficult for critics to agree on a strategy, including arguably their most obvious ploy: to make Parliament unmanageable for Johnson by refusing to back his policies.

Some rebels have said they are preparing for a war of attrition, including vote strikes in the House of Commons. The aim would be to create the kind of Parliament chaos that became a feature for former Prime Minister Theresa May’s tenure, with Brexiteers in her party leaving her government hamstrung.

The problem is that it’s already clear some rebels won’t play along. “I shall vote for Conservative policies that I believe are the right policies -- and that will mean most of them,” long-time critic Roger Gale told Sky News on Monday. “But I don’t have faith in this prime minister.”

Rewriting the Rules

Some rebels have suggested changing the party leadership rules to remove the grace period before Johnson can face another confidence vote. Again, it has echoes of May’s time in office. She won a confidence vote in late 2018, yet Brexiteers including Jacob Rees-Mogg still called for her to resign. The threat to rewrite Tory rules -- though it was never carried out -- hung over May until she was effectively forced out of office months later.

Some Tories believe that if it became clear that the number of rebels had grown to 180 -- a majority of the party -- the pressure to change the rules would make it inevitable. But there is no consensus, and even some of Johnson’s strongest critics say doing so now would be unfair.

“I do not support changing the interval between confidence votes,” David Davis, a leading figure in an attempt to oust Johnson in February, wrote in the Times newspaper. “Doing so threatens to destabilize every future Conservative leader, which would be a disastrous outcome to this episode.”

Big-Hitter Quits Cabinet

Johnson could be forced out if a key member of his cabinet resigned, setting off a domino effect among ministers. For that to happen, it would likely need to be a figure like Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss or another seen as having a realistic chance of becoming leader.

Yet it’s a tricky balancing act, hindered by the lack of agreement among the rebels over who should take over the party. Truss appeals to the fiscal conservatives but not the centrists; Sunak’s star has waned amid the cost of living crisis and the fallout over his family’s tax affairs. Others in the cabinet owe their position to Johnson and lack their own power base in the party.

Some rebels may be counting on a future flash point. Two special elections in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, and in Tiverton and Honiton, Devon, this month -- prompted by separate sex scandals involving Tory MPs -- could be pivotal. A loss in both would add to the feeling that Johnson’s electoral appeal is fading.

But the rebels have one fundamental problem:

Johnson Refuses to Budge

Arguably the biggest obstacle is Johnson’s temperament. One Tory MP, looking for some contrition from the prime minister ahead of Monday’s vote, said he expressed no regret for the scandals that had dragged the party to this point. The boosterism that made Johnson so attractive to voters has a flip side -- he will “bash on” in the face of all demands to quit.

Johnson has already shown he’s no intention of stepping down, even when British political norms have demanded it. They include becoming the first sitting prime minister found to have broken the law when he was fined over partygate, strong evidence he misled lawmakers over the scandal, and then winning less support in a confidence vote than May.

A parliamentary committee is looking closer at whether he lied or misled the House of Commons, and in Westminster chatter there’s a scenario in which it rules against Johnson and the backlash is enough to topple him. All the evidence suggests he would not go without a fight.

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