Explainer

How Johnson Lost the Confidence of Tory Lawmakers

The prime minister broke the rules, and his word.

Boris Johnson
British prime minister Boris Johnson leads his Latvian counterpart, Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš, up the stairs of 10 Downing Street in London, England, March 14 (Valsts kanceleja)

At least 54 British Conservatives want Boris Johnson to go. That was the minimum — 15 percent of lawmakers — needed to trigger a vote of confidence. The prime minister needs to convince a majority of 180 of his colleagues to keep him in office. The vote will be held tonight.

The immediate cause of the rebellion is an investigation that found Johnson broke COVID-19 lockdown rules by attending and hosting multiple parties and other social events in 10 Downing Street, his London residence, through 2020 and 2021.

Other reasons given by Johnson’s internal critics to push him out are: raising tax on energy companies, when Conservatives are supposed to be the party of low taxes; sending asylum seekers to Rwanda while their applications are being processed in the UK; and threatening to pull out of an agreement with the EU that has kept the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland open.

Not only did the prime minister break the rules; he repeatedly breaks his word.

Flipflops

Johnson was for lower taxes, fewer regulations and less welfare before he became a “red Tory”, moving the party to the left on economic and social policy in order to win over disaffected Labour voters.

He claimed to be the “only politician” who would come out in favor of immigration before he deported asylum seekers to Rwanda.

He was for Turkish membership of the EU before he cited possible Turkish membership as a reason to leave the EU. (Turkey is officially a candidate, but few countries want it to join.)

As leader of the Brexit campaign, Johnson claimed that leaving the EU would give Britain an extra £350 million to spend on health care each week. As prime minister, he hasn’t found the money.

As foreign secretary, he criticized then-Prime Minister Theresa May for agreeing to keep Northern Ireland in a customs union with the EU to avoid closing the border with Ireland. As prime minister, he accepted the deal (after pushing May out). Now he threatens to revoke it, because it has necessitated checks on shipments between the province and Great Britain.

He suspended Parliament to avoid a debate on the terms of Britain’s exit from the EU, which the speaker of the House of Commons called a “constitutional outrage.”

He pushed legislation through the Commons that would have given him the power to unilaterally opt out of an international treaty. It took the unelected House of Lords to stop him.

Loser

Worst of all, for Tory lawmakers, is that Johnson has become an electoral liability.

In local elections in May, the Conservative vote share went down from 36 to 30 percent. 485 of the party’s 1,888 councilors lost their seats. Support for Labour went up from 29 to 36 percent.

National polls have put Labour in the lead since the beginning of the year. Support for the Conservatives is in the low 30s, down from the 44 percent Johnson won in 2019.

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