Within seconds of the result of the vote, the single word “Ouch” was threading through the response on Twitter. Yes, a victory, but with 148 votes against and 211 for the prime minister, it was a thinner margin by far than his supporters had hoped. It meant that 41 per cent of his own MPs had no confidence in him and thought it better for the country that he left office. The result leaves Boris Johnson badly weakened and the Conservative party publicly divided, with obvious jeopardy for its ability to govern or to win the next general election.

What does the result mean for Boris Johnson?

As Johnson’s allies said before the vote, he only had to win by a margin of one. In the end, he won by 63 votes. But that still means that 148 of his MPs voted to remove him from office, amounting to more than two thirds of those not on the government “payroll”, that is not among those who hold jobs given to them by the prime minister. It is hard not to see the result as a big boost for Labour and its leader Sir Keir Starmer.

As commentators rushed to say, this is a worse margin than those suffered by Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May in no confidence votes, and both were forced out of office within days and months respectively of winning those votes. Speculation about Johnson’s future will not be quelled by this result.

Johnson will have to look over his shoulder at every vote

By the rules of the party’s 1922 committee, Johnson cannot face another vote of no confidence for a year. But as Sir Graham Brady, head of the committee, has warned, the executive of that committee can change the rules, although as the procedures of the committee are not public – something of which the Institute for Government is critical – the way in which this might happen is obscured.

The reality of political life is that if a majority of his MPs come to want Johnson out, they are likely to find a way. Much jocular comment ahead of the vote noted that a prime minister in trouble for rule breaking might find himself the victim of changed rules if the party discovers a willingness to scrap the bar on a repeat vote within a year.  

The prime minister’s problems do not stop with the vote’s result. He faces two by-elections within weeks – the polls looking very threatening for the Conservative candidates – and a parliamentary investigation by the privileges committee into rule breaking and parties in No.10 which may keep that question alive until the autumn. He also must grapple with the national – and international – cost of living crisis, hard for any government to tackle. The measures of more than £20 billion which his government has already announced do not appear to have improved his personal standing in the polls where disapproval of “partygate” still dominates.

The hardest aspect for him to tackle may be that the Conservative party is now visibly divided and that is a hard position from which to campaign. It is also a hard position from which to govern. The savage attack by Nadine Dorries, a Johnson loyalist, on Jeremy Hunt, who stood against him, is a public picture of a party at war. Johnson will have to look over his shoulder at every vote, calculating on each one whether he has enough support to get it passed. Nor is his support easy to calculate given the range of support against him from MPs across the party.

There comes a point when voters want results rather than pledges to reset

Johnson may now well look to reshuffle his cabinet to promote those who were loyal to him ahead of this vote. But that may simply reinforce the sense of a divided party, split between those loyal to the prime minister and those openly against.

Johnson has also pledged many times to “reset” his government, to focus (as he said in the wake of the vote) on what people “really care about”. He has said he wants to focus on delivering his priorities and to learn from mistakes. He will want to get more attention for the support for energy bills and other cost of living measures which his government is putting together as well as the “levelling up” agenda which is still the centrepiece of its plans. But he has made such pledges before. There comes a point when voters do not want to hear that pledge again; they want to see the results.

Johnson declined to answer questions immediately after the vote about whether he might call a snap election to reassert his authority – nor do opinion polls make that an obviously attractive option. “I’m certainly not interested in snap elections”, he did concede to the BBC after repeated questioning, insisting that “we’re going to bash on, we have a huge agenda”. But it will be hard for him to put all this behind him and do so. The result provides huge ammunition to Labour to keep exposing the splits in the Conservative party and to keep partygate in the headlines, and to keep accusing him, as Starmer did after the vote, of being “a prime minister who never delivers”.

Original source – The Institute for Government

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