British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will face a no-confidence vote Monday that could oust him from power, as discontent with his rule finally threatens to topple a politician who has often seemed invincible despite many scandals.
If Johnson loses the vote among the 359 Conservative lawmakers, the party will choose a new leader, who will also become prime minister. If he wins, as seems more likely, he can’t face another challenge for a year under current party rules — though a narrow victory would leave him a hobbled leader whose days are likely numbered.
Regardless of the outcome, the fact that enough lawmakers are demanding such a vote represents a watershed moment for Johnson. It is also a sign of deep Conservative divisions, less than three years after Johnson led the party to its biggest election victory in decades.
Johnson’s renown as an election-winner has previously insulated him from the fallout of a growing number of scandals. But recently he has struggled to turn the page on revelations that he and his staff repeatedly held boozy parties that flouted the COVID-19 restrictions they imposed on Britain in 2020 and 2021.
Conservative Party official Graham Brady announced Monday that he had received letters calling for a no-confidence vote from at least 54 Tory legislators, enough to trigger the measure under party rules.
“The threshold of 15% (of Conservatives in the House of Commons) has been passed,” Brady said. He said the vote would take place in the Commons on Monday evening, with the result announced soon after.
Johnson’s Downing Street office said the prime minister welcomed the vote.
“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,” it said.
Discontent that has been building for months erupted after a 10-day parliamentary break that included a long weekend of celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee. For many, the four-day holiday was a chance to relax — but there was no respite for Johnson, who was booed by some onlookers as he arrived for a service in the queen’s honor at St. Paul’s Cathedral on Friday.
Brady said some lawmakers who submitted no-confidence letters had asked for them to be held back until after the jubilee weekend.
Still, most political observers think Johnson will win the backing of more than 180 lawmakers and defeat the challenge. But he could still emerge severely weakened. The last prime minister to survive a no-confidence vote was Theresa May in 2018. She never regained her authority and resigned within months, sparking a leadership contest that was won by Johnson.
His selection in July 2019 capped a rollercoaster journey to the top. He had held major offices, including London mayor and U.K. foreign secretary, but also spent periods on the political sidelines after self-inflicted gaffes. He kept bouncing back, showing an uncommon ability to shrug off scandal and connect with voters that, for many Conservatives, overshadowed doubts about his ethics or judgment.
But qualms have been growing, and came to a head after an investigator’s report late last month that slammed a culture of rule-breaking inside the prime minister’s office in a scandal known as “partygate.”
Civil service investigator Sue Gray described alcohol-fueled bashes held by Downing Street staff members at a time when pandemic restrictions prevented U.K. residents from socializing or even visiting dying relatives.
Gray said the “senior leadership team” must bear responsibility for “failures of leadership and judgment.”
Johnson also was fined 50 pounds ($63) by police for attending one party, making him the first prime minister sanctioned for breaking the law while in office.
The prime minister said he was “humbled” and took “full responsibility” — but insisted he would not resign. He urged Britons to “move on” and focus on righting the battered economy and helping Ukraine defend itself against a Russian invasion.
But a growing number of Conservatives feel that Johnson is now a liability who will doom them to defeat at the next election, which must be held by 2024.
“Today’s decision is change or lose,” said Jeremy Hunt, who ran against Johnson for the Conservative leadership in 2019 but has largely refrained from criticizing him since. “I will be voting for change.”
Lawmaker Jesse Norman, a longtime Johnson supporter, said Monday that the prime minister had “presided over a culture of casual law-breaking” and had left the government “adrift and distracted.”
“I am afraid I can see no circumstances in which I could serve in a government led by you,” Norman wrote in a letter published on social media.
Another Tory legislator, John Penrose, quit Monday as the prime minister’s “anticorruption champion,” saying Johnson had breached the government code of conduct with the behavior revealed by partygate.
But senior ministers offered messages of support for Johnson — including some who would be likely to run in the Conservative leadership contest that would be triggered if he is ousted.
“The Prime Minister has my 100% backing in today’s vote and I strongly encourage colleagues to support him,” Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, one of the favorites to succeed Johnson, wrote in a tweet.
Cabinet minister Steve Barclay, a Johnson ally, said toppling the leader now would be “indefensible.”
“The problems we face aren’t easy to solve” but Conservatives have the right plan to tackle them, he wrote on the Conservative Home website.
“To disrupt that progress now would be inexcusable to many who lent their vote to us for the first time at the last general election, and who want to see our prime minister deliver the changes promised for their communities.”