Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced a confidence vote on Monday after a growing number of lawmakers in his Conservative Party questioned the British leader’s authority over what has been dubbed the “partygate” scandal.
Johnson, who scored a sweeping election victory in 2019, has been under increasing pressure after he and staff held alcohol-fuelled parties in his Downing Street office and residence when Britain was under strict lockdowns due to Covid-19.
He was met with a chorus of jeers and boos – and some muted cheers – at events to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth in recent days.
On Monday, the once seemingly unassailable Johnson was also lambasted by ally Jesse Norman, a former junior minister who said the 57-year-old prime minister staying in power insulted both the electorate and the party.
“You have presided over a culture of casual law-breaking at 10 Downing Street in relation to Covid,” he said, adding the government had “a large majority, but no long-term plan”.
Later, the prime minister fought back, meeting his party’s lawmakers just hours before the vote was due to begin, promising to shore up the economy and return to traditional Conservative policies such as cutting taxes.
A Conservative source said Johnson would lay out a plan for growth next week, quoting the prime minister as telling the lawmakers that he could get through “bumpy times” and “I can rebuild trust”.
The source added: “Is there anyone here who hasn’t got pissed in their lives? Is there anyone who doesn’t like a glass of wine to decompress?”
Several lawmakers leaving the meeting of backbench Conservatives said they believed Johnson would win the confidence vote, brought at a time when Britain is facing rising prices, the risk of recession and strike-inflicted travel chaos in London.
Not everyone was convinced.
Jeremy Hunt, a former health minister who ran against Johnson for the leadership in 2019, said the party knew it was failing the country. “Today’s decision is change or lose,” he said. “I will be voting for change.”
Johnson’s anti-corruption chief John Penrose resigned. “I think it’s over. It feels now like a question of when not if,” he told Sky News.
DRAWING A LINE?
A majority of the 359 Conservative lawmakers – at least 180 – would have to vote against Johnson for him to be removed, a level some Conservatives say might be difficult to reach, given the lack of an obvious successor.
By 6 pm local time (1700 GMT), at least 145 Conservative lawmakers had publicly indicated support for Johnson.
Should he lose the vote, a leadership contest would follow to decide his replacement, which could take several weeks.
Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers which oversees any leadership contests, said the vote would be held between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. with the result announced later on Monday.
In what might concern Johnson’s team, he said he was not aware of “any orchestrated campaign” to oust the prime minister, which suggests a more spontaneous rebellion than ones that have felled leaders in the past.
A spokesperson for Johnson’s Downing Street office said the vote would “allow the government to draw a line and move on” and that the prime minister welcomed the opportunity to make his case to lawmakers.
Johnson, a former London mayor, rose to power at Westminster as the face of the Brexit campaign in a 2016 referendum, and won the 2019 election with the slogan to “get Brexit done”.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, Brexit opportunities minister, told Sky News that completing Britain’s departure from the European Union would be “significantly at risk without his drive and energy”.
Johnson has locked horns with Brussels over Northern Ireland, raising the prospect of more barriers for British trade and alarming leaders in Ireland, Europe and the United States about risks to the province’s 1998 peace deal.
Ministers have also been at pains to point out what they describe as the high points of Johnson’s administration – saying Britain’s quick roll-out of Covid-19 vaccinations and its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine proved the prime minister could take the “big decisions”.
“I am backing him today and will continue to back him,” finance minister Rishi Sunak said on Twitter in a choreographed expression of support.
Johnson, or his possible successor, faces a raft of problems. British households are confronted by the biggest cost-of-living squeeze since records began in the 1950s, with food and fuel prices surging while wages lag.
Bookmaker Ladbrokes put Hunt, a former health and foreign minister, as its favourite to replace Johnson, followed by foreign minister Liz Truss.
For many in Britain, the revelations of what went on in Downing Street, including fights and alcohol-induced vomiting, when many people were prevented from saying goodbye to loved ones at funerals, were difficult to stomach.
One gathering that went on until the early hours took place on eve of the April 2021 funeral for the queen’s husband Prince Philip.
Mel Chetwood, a 61-year-old archivist, said the sight of Johnson being booed by a royal-supporting audience was key.
“That felt like a turning point to me.”