Back to the Johnson problem

At the beginning of the year I posted about the woes of British prime minister Boris Johnson, who had been caught out breaking his own Covid rules in the shape of unauthorised social functions at his official residence:

Having prospered by undermining his two predecessors, Johnson can hardly complain if his colleagues show the same ruthlessness towards him. It seems, however, as if this is less a case of concerted plotting and more of internal collapse – MPs are getting to the point of deciding that Johnson has to go even before they have started to think much about who is going to replace him.

Johnson survived the immediate impact of the inquiry into his Covid partying, and then attention was distracted by the invasion of Ukraine – in which he has showed very effective leadership, giving more support to the Ukrainians than other major western leaders (although not when it came to settling Ukrainian refugees). And by the time attention to Ukraine started to wane, Britain was getting into the celebration of the queen’s platinum jubilee.

But the Johnson problem never went away, and with the jubilee over it returned this week in full force. Conservative backbenchers were organising their numbers last weekend, and on Monday the party announced that a sufficient number of requests had been received to require holding a vote of confidence.

MPs duly voted that evening (Tuesday morning Australian time); they expressed their confidence in Johnson, but by a much smaller margin that most had been expecting, 211 to 148. He claimed victory, but pundits, not unreasonably, are sceptical.

The BBC helpfully provides a graphic comparing the result with past confidence votes. The obvious comparison is with three and a half years ago, when Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, then enmeshed in the problems of Brexit, won with 200 to 117 – 63.1%, as against Johnson’s 58.8%.

That wasn’t enough to save May, who resigned six months later. (She is still in parliament, siding with Johnson’s opponents.) But I think it could have been: her problem was not the numbers in themselves, but the fact that she proved unable to cope with the competing demands that Brexit had thrown up. As I said at the time, the vote neither made her position safe nor made it untenable.

Johnson’s position looks more precarious. The numbers against him are stronger, and his fall from grace has been steeper: May was in some trouble as soon as she called an early election, whereas Johnson still seemed to be travelling well about two years into his term. He may struggle on for some months, but it’s very hard to see how he can recover from here.

The next landmark will be a pair of by-elections in a fortnight’s time, in Tiverton & Honiton and Wakefield. Both are currently Conservative seats; Wakefield is universally expected to be lost, since it is not safe to start with and its MP was forced to resign after being convicted of sexual assault. Tiverton & Honiton will be a bigger opposition task: the Conservatives start with a 24,000 vote margin, and its ex-MP’s offence was the lesser one of watching pornography in the House of Commons.

But in the current climate, a big margin is no guarantee. If Labour and the Liberal Democrats (or their voters) can work out which of them is the better prospect, they may deliver an unpleasant shock to the government. And in that case, more Tory MPs will be convinced of the need for change.

The party’s rules supposedly prevent another confidence vote for the next twelve months, but in practice that is no more a real restriction than it was in May’s case. Rules can always be changed if need be, and a prime minister’s colleagues can find other means to make life impossible for him. One way or another, a hostile majority is certain to have its way.

A bigger advantage for Johnson at the moment is the lack of an obvious alternative to replace him. Chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak and foreign secretary Liz Truss have previously been regarded as the front-runners, but Sunak’s star waned somewhat after he struck his own Covid-compliance problems. Former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, whom Johnson beat (by a two-to-one margin) in the 2019 leadership election, is now favored in the betting market, but the field remains very open.

Of course, Johnson has exceeded expectations before. When he was elected I suggested that he could challenge George Canning for the title of shortest-serving prime minister; although he has been less than three years in the job, he has already overtaken not just Canning but another 19 of his predecessors. (Wikipedia has a handy list, although some of the early cases are debatable.)

The moral is twofold. On the one hand, Johnson is capable of surprises, and it’s always possible that he still has something up his sleeve. On the other hand, tenure at the top is often brief and unhappy; short-serving leaders have been the rule as much as the exception. It seems much more likely than not that Johnson will soon join them.

2 thoughts on “Back to the Johnson problem

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