Boris Johnson is attempting to unite his cabinet around his faltering leadership, after insisting that his victory in a confidence vote — in which 41 per cent of Tory MPs voted to oust him — was “extremely good”.
The UK prime minister will on Tuesday urge ministers to move on from the divisive and highly damaging confidence vote, with a renewed focus on issues such as the economy and housing.
Johnson’s allies say he is also planning a ministerial reshuffle to reward those who have remained loyal to him, while punishing those perceived to have undermined his leadership.
He won Monday’s confidence vote by 211 to 148 but was confronted by grim headlines. The Daily Telegraph, Johnson’s former employer, led its front page with the headline: “Hollow victory tears Tories apart” while William Hague, one of his predecessors as party leader, called on the prime minister to quit.
Johnson and his allies attempted to portray the result as a moment when the party could bury its differences and pull together; however the vote exposed rancour and a breakdown in Tory discipline.
“I think it’s an extremely good, positive, conclusive, decisive result which enables us to move on, to unite and to focus on delivery,” Johnson said after Monday’s result.
However, Johnson’s victory was by a slimmer margin than the one secured by his predecessor Theresa May in a confidence vote in 2018; she was forced to resign as prime minister six months later.
The biggest threat to Johnson now would be a series of resignations by ministers no longer willing to serve in his government, although so far there has been no sign of that happening.
Tobias Ellwood, Tory chair of the Commons defence committee and a Johnson critic, said on Monday: “The days of honourable resignations are no longer there.”
Dominic Raab, deputy prime minister, told the BBC he had no intention of quitting. “I will always put first and foremost the good of the country,” he said, adding that was best served by Johnson remaining in post.
He said he was confident the Conservatives could exceed the 80-seat majority secured by Johnson in the 2019 general election if the party pulled together.
But some Tory MPs believe Monday’s vote starts the beginning of a long slide out of office for Johnson, who faces multiple challenges in the months ahead — including an autumn of high inflation and possible recession.
Lord Hague, a former Tory leader and foreign secretary, wrote in The Times that the votes cast against Johnson’s leadership “show a greater level of rejection than any Tory leader has ever endured and survived”. He called for the prime minister to “turn his mind to getting out in a way that spares party and country such agonies and uncertainties”.
Johnson also faces a parliamentary inquiry into whether he lied about the partygate scandal over Downing Street gatherings while social events were banned, as well as two treacherous by-elections. The Tories are defending seats in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton on June 23 and opinion polls have shown them lagging behind the opposition in both.
“The scale of the vote against the prime minister this evening is clear evidence that he no longer enjoys the full-hearted confidence of the parliamentary party and should consider his position,” said Julian Sturdy, one Tory backbencher.
Under current party rules, Johnson cannot face another no confidence vote for 12 months, but senior Tories have said the rules could be changed with immediate effect, if they felt the party was suffering under his leadership.
Some Conservative MPs believe Johnson will never resign, no matter what electoral damage he might be causing. “He’s an existential threat to the Conservative party,” said one Tory backbencher.
Raab, when asked whether a disunited party would frustrate Johnson’s legislative agenda, replied: “There’s a huge amount, when you look at our policy agenda, that binds us together.”
A test of Johnson’s authority could come soon, with the publication expected in the coming days of legislation to rip up parts of the Northern Ireland protocol, part of the UK’s 2020 Brexit agreement with the EU.
Some Conservatives have already warned Johnson not to tear up an international treaty. If he pushes ahead with the legislation, the EU has said it will retaliate by shutting British scientists out of the €95bn Horizon research project.