The British Conservative Party is fond of regicide. In the last few weeks, there have been rumours that many Tory rebels are plotting against Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the aftermath of Partygate. There has even been speculation that a confidence vote might be triggered.
This morning, that speculation was vindicated. The announcement that there will be a Tory confidence vote in the prime minister’s leadership was made by Sir Graham Brady, current chairman of the 1922 Committee—the parliamentary body that represents backbench Tory MPs.
To trigger a vote, at least 15% of Conservative MPs must write a letter saying they no longer have any confidence in their leader. Given that there are 359 Conservative MPs in Parliament, this works out as at least 54 rebels needed to force a ballot. The actual number could be a dozen or so more than that. Quite clearly, the string of mid-lockdown parties in Downing Street, the resulting police fine, and the possibility that Johnson knowingly misled Parliament have forced enough Conservative MPs to believe that the prime minister is no longer fit to govern the country. Whether these rebels are in a majority will be determined tonight.
If Johnson does not win the vote, he will be ousted as leader of the Conservative Party and therefore be kicked out of his residence in 10 Downing Street. Only Conservative MPs are eligible to take part in the contest, since the dispute is technically an internal party one. The vote will take place this evening between 18:00 and 20:00 (BST). The result will then be announced by Brady shortly afterwards.
In order to win, Johnson needs a simple majority. Given that there are 359 Conservative MPs (and assuming no one abstains), this means that 180 votes will be enough—a threshold that Johnson is highly likely to meet tonight. The problem is, that unless the prime minister triumphs by a decisive margin, he will not be able to argue to the people that the matter is settled.
As Theresa May learned throughout 2019, it is very difficult to govern the country with so many of your MPs expressly opposed to your leadership. Indeed, May faced a similar confidence vote in December 2018 in reaction to her very unpopular Brexit withdrawal agreement. She won it by 200 to 177. In other words, 63% of Conservative MPs expressed confidence in her leadership. The announcement of this result was met with widespread cheers from the parliamentary party. But this did not save May from having to resign six months later. To enjoy the support of just 63% of your own MPs is a dangerously insecure mandate. The real test of Johnson’s odds of political survival will be whether he gets a higher or lower percentage of the Tory votes than his predecessor did in 2018.
The ballot is entirely secret. It is even possible that some of the most vocal supporters of the prime minister in public will vote against him in the privacy of the booth. This can be a particularly strong temptation for members of the government who fancy themselves as potential successors. The Spectator has two regularly updated lists of the Tory MPs publicly backing Johnson and those publicly opposing him.
In a public letter to Conservative MPs, Johnson wrote: “Tonight we have the chance to end weeks of media speculation and take this country forward, immediately, as a united party.”
Even if he does win, for the next two years Johnson will have to fight for his political life. There is every chance that he will not be the man to lead the Conservatives into the next election.
Harrison Pitt is a writer for The European Conservative. Based in the UK, he has also been published in The Spectator, Quillette, Spiked-Online, The Critic, and others.