If Boris Johnson seemed as if he was in real trouble earlier today (6 June), we now know his days in No 10 are very likely numbered. By losing the support of 148 Conservative MPs, the Prime Minister has fared worse in his vote of confidence, proportionally, than Margaret Thatcher in 1990 (147 rebels in present terms), Theresa May in 2018 (133) and John Major in 1995 (121).
Only Major survived to contest another election – May announced her resignation within six months of receiving her confidence vote results and Thatcher within 48 hours. Johnson fared worse than all of them today, yet no one expects him to resign imminently, or indeed at all.
He is, however, far from safe. Why? Firstly because governing without the support of two in five of your MPs is impractical. As a veteran of the May era put it to me today, “You try and say ‘Right that’s sorted, back to business as usual’” in the wake of a no-confidence vote, but a damning electoral result “demonstrates political mortality. The PM who suffers a meaningful vote against them in a confidence vote is a wounded gladiator.”
MPs will become more rebellious, if not openly fractious. The May veteran explained: “They start to think: ‘They [the prime minister] are on their way out anyway, so actually I don’t mind rebelling, I don’t need to curry favour to be junior minister for paper clips.’” No Tory prime minister has tried to control a party after enduring so severe a vote. A degree of chaos will probably lie ahead if Johnson tries to do so.
Most importantly, he could soon face another confidence vote. I am told by those familiar with the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, which administers the votes, that there are two windows for adjusting the rules, under which Johnson is now theoretically free of a further vote for a year. The first is after the two upcoming by-elections in Wakefield and in Tiverton and Honiton in two and a half weeks. After those elections, which are both expected to be losses for the party (to Labour and the Liberal Democrats respectively), there will be four weeks until the summer recess.
If the 1922 believes that a majority of the party wants another vote against Johnson, the executive has the power to change the rules and call another vote. The current executive may well be willing to do so, but if they are not, a new executive is set to be elected in the autumn. Rebels are confident they will be able to win enough seats on that executive to change the rules then, if they have not already done so, and if that is still necessary. Boris Johnson is far from safe.