With 41.2 per cent of Conservative MPs opposing him in last night’s vote of confidence, Boris Johnson received less support than John Major in 1995 and Theresa May in 2018 – the last two examples of a Conservative prime minister facing such a vote.
The subsequent experiences of Major and May offer little encouragement. Major continued as prime minister for two years but was then beaten convincingly by Tony Blair’s Labour Party in the 1997 general election. May announced her resignation just five months after winning her vote, unable to secure backbencher support for her Brexit deal.
Even strong victories in votes of confidence appear to still signal the beginning of the end for Conservative prime ministers. In 1989 Margaret Thatcher convincingly defeated a challenge by the backbencher Anthony Meyer but a year later she faced a tougher challenge from Michael Heseltine. In that contest 40.9 per cent of Conservative MPs voted against her and she resigned within two days.
The percentage of Conservative MPs that rebelled yesterday was marginally higher than those who voted against Thatcher in 1990. Johnson, however, has given no indication that his resignation is imminent. Rather, his supporters have talked of him having a “fresh mandate”.
If Johnson is to survive where previous Conservative leaders have not, his party will have to put in a strong performance in the Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton by-elections on 23 June. Two polls published yesterday – one by Survation and the other by JL Partners – showed the Conservatives far behind Labour (23 and 20 percentage points respectively) in Wakefield, a typical Red Wall constituency.