Boris Johnson on the ropes

Johnson Braced for Tory Rebels to Force Confidence Vote in Days

Boris Johnson on May 25, 2022. Photographer: David Levenson/Bloomberg

(Bloomberg) -- British Prime Minister Boris Johnson sees rebel MPs from the governing Conservative Party triggering a vote on his leadership as soon as this week, according to a key ally of the premier. 

By Kitty Donaldson and Andrew Atkinson

Tory MPs seeking to oust Johnson may be on the cusp of securing the 54 letters required to force a confidence vote, said the person, who insisted that the prime minister is confident that he would win any ballot if it were to take place. One MP who has been mobilizing against Johnson said they thought the rebels already have the numbers to call a vote.Under Tory party rules, only the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, Graham Brady, knows for sure how many MPs have formally called for the premier to step down. Once the threshold is reached, Brady’s first move is to inform the prime minister. A spokesperson for the prime minister declined to comment.

Johnson has insisted he has no intention of resigning but the drumbeat of calls for him to go has steadily increased since the publication last month of an internal probe into illegal parties held in Downing Street during the pandemic.

Tory MPs return to Westminster on Monday after a long holiday weekend to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s 70 years on the throne with speculation mounting about whether the prime minister can survive. If they can trigger a confidence vote, and it’s still not certain that will happen, the rebels would need 180 voters to remove Johnson and prompt a leadership contest to choose the next prime minister.

Uncertainty over Johnson’s future comes as Britons grapple with soaring energy bills and the highest inflation in four decades. Warnings that as many as 250,000 more households faced being plunged into destitution prompted Chancellor Rishi Sunak to unveil a 15 billion-pound ($18.7 billion) support package to ease the cost of living crisis.

Sour Mood

The report into the so-called partygate scandal has soured the mood among lawmakers already frustrated by Johnson’s chaotic style and a series of missteps. Johnson became the first sitting prime minister found to have broken the law when he was fined over a celebration for his birthday party during the pandemic.

But the push to unseat him appears to have gathered momentum in recent days, when many Tory MPs are likely to have faced the fury of their constituents and local party associations.

Johnson was booed by crowds on Friday as he entered St. Paul’s Cathedral for a service of thanksgiving for the Queen, though there were also cheers. On Saturday, the premier was the target of on-stage jibes at a Jubilee concert watched by millions. He was sat just meters away, behind members of the royal family, at the time.

Fears that Johnson could cost the Conservatives the 2024 general election will have been heightened by new polling suggesting the party is facing defeat in a special election in Wakefield on June 23. The seat is among the historically Labour-voting districts in northern England — the so-called Red Wall — that helped deliver a huge House of Commons majority for the Tories in 2019. On Sunday, pollster J.L. Partners put Labour 20 points ahead.

The party is also facing humiliation in a separate by-election due to be held in Tiverton and Honiton in southwest England on the same day. Bookmakers have the Liberal Democrats as favorites to take the Conservative stronghold. Both votes were triggered by Tory MPs stepping down over separate sex scandals.

Shifting Focus

Allies rallied around Johnson on Sunday. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps defended his record in office and said he’d win any leadership ballot. Business Minister Paul Scully said the party “may well have a vote of confidence” but insisted Johnson will survive.

“Whatever happens, we’ve got to get back to governing, to tackle things that people want him to do on a daily basis,” Scully told the Andrew Neil Show on Channel 4.

Johnson will make a last-ditch attempt to win over wavering Tories with a series of policy announcements in the coming week, including the progress the government is making in tackling the treatment backlog built up in the National Health Service during the pandemic.

In a separate announcement, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the UK is to send multiple-launch rocket systems to Ukraine to help the country defend itself against Russian aggression.

© 2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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