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Johnson faces Tory leadership vote as partygate angers MPs

‘Tonight is a chance to end months of speculation and allow the government to draw a line and move on, delivering on the people’s priorities,’ a spokesperson for Johnson’s office said in a statement. 

Boris Johnson will face a leadership vote in his ruling Conservative Party on Monday following a series of scandals, including becoming the first sitting prime minister found to have broken the law.

Senior Tory MP Graham Brady said in a televised statement the threshold of at least 54 MPs — 15% of the Conservative total — has been met to trigger a confidence vote in Johnson. The vote takes place for two hours from 6 p.m., with a result shortly after, Brady said.

Pressure on the British prime minister has been building over “partygate,” the media nickname for the illegal events in Downing Street during the pandemic for which Johnson received a police fine. The scandal compounded the sense of frustration among Tory MPs, after what they saw as a series of errors and U-turns that have seen the party slump in opinion polls.

That so many MPs have lost confidence in him is a massive blow to Johnson, who led the Conservative Party to its biggest general election win in more than three decades in 2019. Still, it is by no means a given that a vote will bring an end to his premiership, and Johnson made clear he plans to come out fighting.

“Tonight is a chance to end months of speculation and allow the government to draw a line and move on, delivering on the people’s priorities,” a spokesperson for Johnson’s office said in a statement.

Senior members of his cabinet, including Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Health Secretary Sajid Javid, also said on Monday Johnson has their support.

“The prime minister will stand and fight his corner with a very, very strong case,” Javid told Sky News on Monday, before Brady’s announcement. “So let’s just wait and see what happens.”

Ousting him requires a majority of the party’s 359 MPs, with any abstentions altering the math. Several factors may work in the prime minister’s favor, including the large number of MPs on the government’s payroll and the lack of obvious successors for the party to rally around. If Johnson wins the secret ballot, under party rules he would be immune from another vote for a year.

But history shows prime ministers are usually significantly weakened even if they win, because a vote lays bare the depth of opposition. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, was forced out by other means just months after winning a confidence vote as the Tory party tore itself apart over Brexit.

On Monday, former minister Jesse Norman published a letter excoriating Johnson, accusing him of “lacking a sense of mission.”

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. They return to Westminster on Monday after a long holiday weekend to celebrate the Queen Elizabeth II’s 70 years on the throne, having seen Johnson booed by crowds at an event on Friday.

Apology

It was a reminder that as well as being fined himself over partygate, Johnson was also forced to apologize to the Queen over an event held in Downing Street — which he didn’t attend — on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral.

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.

Uncertainty over Johnson’s future comes at a vulnerable time for the UK, with the economic fallout from Brexit and the pandemic leaving consumers facing the worst squeeze on living standards since the 1950s.

The cost-of-living crisis has been exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which earlier this year appeared to have saved Johnson from facing a confidence vote as the crisis shifted the focus of Tory MPs. But the drip-drip of Tories adding their name to the rebel ranks means Johnson is now battling to save his premiership.

© 2022 Bloomberg

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