Doubts hang over UK’s Johnson though bid to oust him fails

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson addresses his Cabinet during his weekly Cabinet meeting in Downing Street on Tuesday, June 7, 2022 in London. (Leon Neal/Pool Photo via AP)

LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson scrambled to patch up his tattered authority on Tuesday after surviving a no-confidence vote that exposed his shrinking support in a fractured Conservative Party and raised serious doubts about how long he can stay in office.

The fact that the vote was held at all highlighted concerns that the famously people-pleasing Johnson has become a liability with voters. The scale of the rebellion — 41% of Conservative lawmakers voted against him — would have led most prime ministers to consider resigning.

“This is not over,” said Philip Dunne, a Conservative legislator who voted against Johnson in Monday’s no-confidence ballot. But with Johnson defiantly vowing to “get on with the job,” the endgame may not be quick.

Johnson vowed Tuesday to focus on “what matters to the British people,” defined by him as the economy, health care and crime.

“We are able now to draw a line under the issues that our opponents want to talk about” and “take the country forward,” he told Cabinet colleagues at their weekly meeting.

But Johnson faces serious questions about his ability to govern a country at a time of increasing economic and social strain.

The rebellion was also a sign of deep Conservative divisions, less than three years after Johnson led the party to its biggest election victory in decades — the peak of a rollercoaster political career.

Many Conservatives have concerns about the probity, and increasingly the popularity, of a prime minister who has previously shown a remarkable ability to shrug off scandal.

The no-confidence vote was triggered because at least 54 Tory legislators, 15% of the party’s parliamentary caucus, called for a challenge to Johnson, following public outrage over government parties that broke COVID-19 lockdowns.

Lawmakers voted by 211 to 148 to support him as leader, beyond the 180 he needed to stay in power. Johnson described the win as “convincing”— but the rebellion was larger than some of his supporters had predicted. It was also a narrower margin than his predecessor, Theresa May, secured in a 2018 no-confidence vote. She was forced to resign six months later.

“It will come as a big blow,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “The reality is that these contests have a habit of exposing quite how weak the authority of a prime minister is.”

Most British newspapers were in little doubt that it was bad news for Johnson. The Conservative-supporting Daily Telegraph announced: “Hollow victory tears Tories apart.” The Times called Johnson “a wounded victor,” while the left-leaning Daily Mirror said bluntly: “Party’s over, Boris.”

Former Conservative leader William Hague called on Johnson to step down, saying “the damage done to his premiership is severe.”

“Words have been said that cannot be retracted, reports published that cannot be erased, and votes have been cast that show a greater level of rejection than any Tory leader has ever endured and survived,” Hague wrote in a Times of London article whose words were splashed across the British media.

Senior government ministers backed Johnson’s call to move on. Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said the party should “draw a line in the sand after this vote.”