Monday, July 4, 2022

After ‘partygate’, UK PM Johnson faces confidence vote

A majority of Conservative lawmakers - or 180 - would have to vote against Johnson for him to be removed - a level some Conservatives say might be difficult to reach.

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced a confidence vote on Monday, after a growing number of lawmakers in the governing Conservative Party questioned the British leader’s authority following a “partygate” scandal.

Johnson, who won a sweeping election victory in 2019, has been under growing pressure after he and staff held alcohol-fuelled parties at the heart of power when Britain was under strict lockdowns to tackle Covid-19.

He was met with the chorus of jeers and boos, and some muted cheers, at events to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth in recent days.

On Monday, the once seemingly unassailable Johnson was also attacked by one-time ally Jesse Norman, a former junior minister who said the prime minister staying in power insulted both the electorate and the party.

“You have presided over a culture of casual law-breaking at 10 Downing Street in relation to Covid,” he said, adding the government had “a large majority, but no long-term plan”.

Norman is one of a growing number of Conservative lawmakers to publicly say that Johnson, 57, has lost his authority to govern Britain, which is facing the risk of recession, rising prices and strike-inflicted travel chaos in the capital London.

Jeremy Hunt, a former health minister who ran against Johnson for the leadership in 2019, said the party knew it was letting the country down. “Today’s decision is change or lose,” he said. “I will be voting for change.”

Johnson’s anti-corruption champion John Penrose quit. “I think it’s over. It feels now like a question of when not if,” he told Sky News when asked about Johnson’s future.

Drawing a line?

Graham Brady, chairman of the party’s 1922 Committee that represents rank-and-file Conservative lawmakers, said a vote would be held between 6pm and 8pm (1700-1900 GMT) on Monday.

“The votes will be counted immediately afterwards. An announcement will be made at a time to be advised,” he said.

A spokesman for Johnson’s Downing Street office said the vote would “allow the government to draw a line and move on, delivering on the people’s priorities”.

“The PM welcomes the opportunity to make his case to MPs (members of parliament) and will remind them that when they’re united and focused on the issues that matter to voters there is no more formidable political force.”

Johnson, the former London mayor, rose to power at Westminster as the face of the Brexit campaign in the 2016 referendum, and took a tough stance once in power, steering Britain out of the single market and customs union.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, Brexit opportunities minister, told Sky News that completing Britain’s departure from the European Union would be “significantly at risk without his drive and energy”.

Johnson has recently locked horns with the EU over Northern Ireland, raising the prospect of more barriers for British trade and alarming political leaders in Ireland, Europe and the US about risks to the province’s 1998 peace deal.

Outcome uncertain

A majority of Conservative lawmakers – or 180 – would have to vote against Johnson for him to be removed – a level some Conservatives say might be difficult to reach. If passed, there would then be a leadership contest to decide his replacement, which could take several weeks.

Lawmakers said they had received letters from the prime minister, in which he asked for their support in the vote.

Several ministers in his cabinet team were swift to put out messages of support for the prime minister, with Finance Minister Rishi Sunak, like other possible successors, saying Johnson had shown “strong leadership”.

“I am backing him today and will continue to back him as we focus on growing the economy, tackling the cost of living and clearing the Covid backlogs,” he said on Twitter in what appeared to be a choreographed expression of support.

Bookmaker Ladbrokes put former health minister Hunt as its favourite to replace Johnson if he was ousted, followed by foreign minister Liz Truss, who also tweeted her “100% backing” of the prime minister in Monday’s vote.

Since the release of a damning report into the so-called “partygate” scandal, which listed fights and alcohol-induced vomiting at lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street, Johnson and his government had urged lawmakers to move on.

But after parliament took a break last week sending many lawmakers back to their constituencies, or voting regions, several were met by a chorus of complaints over Johnson.

The biting criticism from Norman, who served as a junior minister in the finance ministry between 2019 and 2021, was perhaps the biggest sign that criticism of Johnson had spread beyond a vocal group of so-called rebels.

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