Boris Johnson ends the week with reason to be cheerful. On Monday, he survived the biggest challenge to his leadership since becoming Prime Minister, after his Conservative MPs backed him in a confidence vote to remain party leader by 211 to 148. That victory does, however, come with some major caveats. Johnson’s government is currently thought to have somewhere between 170-180 MPs on its payroll.
As the vote was private, that means as a best-case scenario, Johnson was only able to secure a handful of backbench votes. In a worst-case scenario, people on the payroll voted against him the second they were given the protection of anonymity. While Johnson and his allies have since claimed the victory was convincing and a decisive result that hands the PM a refreshed mandate, the reality is 41% of his own MPs do not want him in power.
That number is worse than the result of a confidence vote in Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, in 2018 and is likely to rise in the coming months. For now, though, Johnson’s job is safe. Conservative Party rules protect him from another confidence vote for 12 months. There is speculation that the party might try and rewrite those rules, but given the private nature of the Conservatives, it’s hard to get a real sense of how likely this is. So, what happens next? Johnson is announcing a flurry of policy ideas designed to cheer up his backbenchers and voters. More houses, more doctors, more police, crackdowns on illegal immigration to name a few.
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the National Service of Thanksgiving held at St Paul’s Cathedral as part of celebrations marking the Platinum Jubilee of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, in London, Friday, June 3, 2022.Meanwhile, those who most want to see his downfall are not sitting on their hands.
Publicly, MPs say that the result of the confidence vote means they owe Johnson their loyalty — for now. He deserves the time to turn things around, they say. However, multiple sources confirmed to CNN that those with an eye on the top job are already building their power bases and getting ready to launch leadership bids, should the time come. Dinners with donors who would fund individual campaigns have already taken place, organized by MPs who have already picked their choice for leader. Influential MPs have been courted to test the water.
“The phone calls tend to start with 15 minutes of insisting that Boris has their full support and that they don’t think a leadership contest will happen. Then they outline their vision of how they would improve things. It’s discreet, but it’s happening,” a senior Conservative told CNN. The hopefuls acting most openly are unsurprisingly long-term critics of Johnson.
“Most of the activity seems to be around Jeremy Hunt and other former Remainers,” says one veteran Conservative and former cabinet minister, referring to those who wanted the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union. “That makes sense as they never wanted Boris in the first place and have the least to lose.” Hunt, who has held three cabinet posts, most notably health, is without question the highest-profile contender on the moderate, ex-Remain side of the party. However, he comes with baggage and sources from the opposition Labour Party have told CNN they are already writing attack lines.