British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced down a no-confidence vote among Conservative MPs on Monday, after dozens rebelled over a string of scandals that have left the party’s public standing in tatters.
The beleaguered leader has spent months battling to maintain his grip on power after the “Partygate” controversy saw him become the first serving UK prime minister to have broken the law.
If he loses, he must step down as Conservative leader, but can stay on as prime minister pending a party leadership election in the coming weeks.
A long line of Tory MPs snaked down the corridor to a parliamentary committee room as voting began at 1700 GMT. The result is due to be announced at 2000 GMT.
Johnson earlier defended his record on delivering Brexit, fighting the Covid pandemic and Britain’s hawkish support for Ukraine against Russia.
“This is not the moment for a leisurely and entirely unforced domestic political drama and months and months of vacillation from the UK,” he told Tory MPs, according to a senior party source.
Supporters could be heard cheering and thumping their tables in approval.
The source said Johnson had indicated tax cuts could be in the offing as Britain contends with its worst inflation crisis in generations.
“We have been through bumpy times before and I can rebuild trust,” the prime minister told his parliamentary rank and file, according to the source, adding: “The best is yet to come.”
But the scale of Tory disunity was exposed in a blistering resignation letter from Johnson’s “anti-corruption champion” John Penrose and another letter of protest from longtime ally Jesse Norman.
The prime minister’s rebuttals over “Partygate” were “grotesque”, Norman wrote, warning that the Tories risked losing the next general election, which is due by 2024.
Ex-cabinet member Jeremy Hunt, who lost to Johnson in the last leadership contest in 2019 and is expected to run again if he is deposed, confirmed he would vote against him.
“Conservative MPs know in our hearts we are not giving the British people the leadership they deserve,” Hunt tweeted.
– Jubilee booing –
After a dismal showing in May local elections, the party is expected to lose two Westminster by-elections this month, one of them in a previously rock-solid Conservative seat.
That is focusing the minds of Tory lawmakers, who fear their own seats could be at risk under Johnson.
In a snap poll by Opinium Monday of 2,032 people, 59 percent of respondents said the Tories should ditch him as leader.
Among Conservative members, 42 percent want MPs to fire Johnson, according to another poll by YouGov.
Johnson was booed Friday by sections of an ardently patriotic crowd gathered outside St Paul’s Cathedral, ahead of a religious service for Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee.
For wavering Tories, the barracking at a televised national occasion reportedly marked a turning point. Some said they had held back on public criticism of Johnson until after the jubilee.
But cabinet ally Jacob Rees-Mogg dismissed the booing as “muted noise” and insisted that Johnson could survive with the slenderest of majorities.
“He has shown himself to be a good, strong leader who gets the big decisions right, and he has a mandate from the British people,” Rees-Mogg told reporters.
Graham Brady, who heads the backbench committee of Conservatives which oversees party challenges, had earlier confirmed that the threshold of 54 Tory lawmakers seeking a confidence vote — or 15 percent of its MPs — had been met.
– Beginning of the end? –
Brady told reporters that he had informed Johnson early on Sunday — as four days of jubilee celebrations ended — and that the prime minister had not objected to a rapid ballot.
In a message of thanks for the celebrations of her record-breaking 70-year reign, the queen had expressed hope that “this renewed sense of togetherness will be felt for many years to come”.
Conservative MPs had other ideas, as they openly squabbled on Twitter in often-scathing terms following Brady’s announcement.
Dozens have broken ranks and criticised Johnson after an internal probe into “Partygate” said he had presided over a culture of Covid lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street.
Some of the parties ran late into the night, and one featured a drunken fight among staff, at a time when the government’s pandemic rules forbade ordinary Britons from bidding farewell in person to dying loved ones.
But Johnson, 57, who won a landslide election victory in December 2019 on a vow to “get Brexit done”, has steadfastly refused to resign.
He needs the backing of 180 MPs to survive Monday’s vote: a majority of one out of the 359 sitting Conservatives.
In previous Tory ballots, predecessors Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May both ultimately resigned despite narrowly winning their own votes, deciding that their premierships were terminally damaged.
“If he wins narrowly, history suggests it would still be the beginning of the end for him,” said politics expert Hannah Bunting at the University of Exeter.