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

The British prime minister is now free from another challenge for a year.
Posted at 7:48 PM, Jun 07, 2022

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson scrambled to patch up his tattered authority on Tuesday after surviving a no-confidence vote that laid bare deep divisions in his Conservative Party and raised serious doubts about how long he can stay in office.

Under party rules, Johnson is now free from another challenge for a year. But previous prime ministers who have faced no-confidence votes have been terminally damaged — and a growing number of Conservative lawmakers worry that the famously people-pleasing Johnson is now tarnished by the "partygate" ethics scandal and has become a liability with voters.

Johnson nevertheless vowed to "get on with the job" and focus on "what matters to the British people" — defined by him as the economy, health care and crime — after Conservative lawmakers voted by 211 to 148 to support him as leader.

"We are able now to draw a line under the issues that our opponents want to talk about" and "take the country forward," Johnson told Cabinet colleagues.

But the scale of the rebellion raised serious questions about his ability to govern at a time of increasing economic and social strain. 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.

"This is not over," echoed Philip Dunne, a Conservative lawmaker who voted against Johnson in Monday's no-confidence ballot.

The vote was triggered because at least 54 Tory legislators, 15% of the party's parliamentary caucus, called for a challenge to Johnson.

Johnson needed the backing of 180 of the 359 Conservative lawmakers to stay in power. He got more than that — but although he described the win as "convincing," the rebellion was larger than some of his supporters had predicted.

The margin was narrower than the one his predecessor, Theresa May, got in a 2018 no-confidence vote. She was forced to resign six months later.

"It will come as a big blow. And I think they will worry that this story isn't over yet," 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."

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. Most British newspapers were in little doubt that it was bad news for a leader who has always before shown an uncommon ability to shrug off scandals.

The Conservative-supporting Daily Telegraph announced "Hollow victory tears Tories apart," while The Times called Johnson "a wounded victor" and the left-leaning Daily Mirror said bluntly: "Party's over, Boris."

But some staunch supporters tried to move past the vote on Tuesday. Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said the party should "draw a line in the sand after this vote."

"It was clearly and decisively won," he said.

The vote followed months of brewing discontent over the prime minister's ethics and judgment that centered on revelations of lawbreaking parties in the prime minister's office when Britain was under lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a report last month on the "partygate" scandal, civil service investigator Sue Gray described alcohol-fueled bashes held by Downing Street staff members in 2020 and 2021, when pandemic restrictions prevented U.K. residents from socializing or even visiting dying relatives. Gray said Johnson and senior officials must bear responsibility for "failures of leadership and judgment" that created a culture of rule-breaking in government.

Johnson also was fined 50 pounds ($63) by police for attending one party, making him the first prime minister sanctioned for breaking the law while in office.

The prime minister said he was "humbled" and took "full responsibility" — but went on to defend his attendance at parties as necessary for staff morale and call some of the "partygate" criticism unfair.

Johnson still faces a parliamentary ethics probe over "partygate," and his government is also under intense pressure to ease the pain of skyrocketing energy and food bills, while managing the fallout from Britain's exit from the European Union.

Polls give the left-of-center opposition Labour Party a lead nationally, and Johnson will face more pressure if the Conservatives lose special elections later this month for two parliamentary districts, called when incumbent Tory lawmakers were forced out by sex scandals.

Bale said Johnson would likely fight back with tax cuts and other policies designed to appeal to his party's right-leaning base.

"The problem with that is that it's proposing, if you like, policy solutions to a personality problem," he said. "It looks from opinion polls that the public have turned against Boris Johnson in particular, and that's in part what's dragging the Conservative Party down."

Additional reporting by the Associated Press.

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