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Boris Johnson survives no-confidence vote in a victory of sorts

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street to attend the weekly Prime Minister's Questions at the Houses of Parliament, in London last month.
Matt Dunham
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street to attend the weekly Prime Minister's Questions at the Houses of Parliament, in London last month.

Updated June 6, 2022 at 5:12 PM ET

LONDON — U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson survived a no-confidence vote Monday despite about 40% of lawmakers in his own Conservative party voting to get rid of him.

Of the 359 members of parliament who voted on Monday, 211 voted for Johnson to remain in power and 148 voted to say they did not have confidence in the prime minister.

While this is a victory of sorts for Johnson, the number of those who opposed him is far higher than most analysts had expected.

To put this in perspective, Johnson's predecessor, Theresa May, survived a no-confidence vote in December 2018 in which 117 Conservative Party lawmakers voted against her. By July the next year, after her party suffered defeats in European parliamentary elections, she stepped down.

Johnson is coming off an ignominious distinction: he recently became the first sitting prime minister officially found to have broken the law, due to his flouting of his own government's COVID-19 restrictions. And on Friday, he was loudly booed when he arrived at St Paul's Cathedral for a service of thanksgiving marking Queen Elizabeth II's Platinum Jubilee.

Johnson has long been seen as an entertaining cheerleader for his country as well as a person who sometimes breaks the rules. Johnson has often used his humor, charm as well as distractions to get out of tight spots. He is seen as Britain's Teflon politician — but his handling of COVID may finally stick.

How lawmakers forced Monday's vote

At least 54 Conservative party lawmakers wrote letters calling for a no-confidence vote in the prime minister. Those letters accounted for 15% of Tory parliamentarians, the threshold required for triggering such a vote.

The Tory rebels needed the backing of at least 180 Conservative lawmakers out of 359 to vote Johnson out. But since they failed to oust the prime minister, the rebels can't challenge him again for another 12 months, under the current rules.

Ahead of the vote, Johnson's team told his fellow Conservatives to slow down, warning that an internal clash would only help the Labour Party, the Conservatives' main opposition. They pointed to ongoing crises such as the war in Ukraine, where the U.K. has been a leader in arming the Ukrainian army. They also urged lawmakers to focus on economic challenges, such as the rising cost of living for Britons.

The vote is a body shot to a bruised Johnson

Johnson's brash style has found wide appeal in the U.K., but he's now facing a lot of public anger about the way he and his staff behaved during Britain's COVID lockdown.

A government report came out late last month that found a drunken culture at No. 10 Downing Street, describing parties in which one person vomited, red wine was splashed on the walls, and cleaning staff were abused. Johnson himself ended up being fined $62 for breaking one of his own laws.

The Partygate scandal has infuriated many Britons who followed the government's rules, including those who were not able to say goodbye to loved ones in person. COVID-19 accounts for nearly 180,000 deaths in the U.K., according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

The prime minister's behavior presented a stark contrast to the sacrifices born by others — including the queen, who famously set an example as she sat alone at her husband's funeral, wearing a mask, in April of 2021. It later emerged that Johnson's staff had held a raucous party on the eve of Prince Philip's funeral — an incident for which it later apologized.

At the queen's recent celebration, actor Stephen Fry drew cheers and laughs at a large Buckingham Palace concert when he praised the monarch's decades of service and fortitude — seemingly at the expense of Johnson, who was watching from the royal box.

"How many trees planted, ribbons cut, ships launched?" Fry asked, before landing his jab: "How many prime ministers tolerated? For that alone, no admiration is high enough."

Even though Johnson has survived the no-confidence vote, his missteps are prompting something of a clinical review by his political allies. Within his Conservative Party, some see Johnson as damaged goods, questioning whether he can lead them into the next leadership election, which is expected in 2024.

Johnson still faces an investigation from the privileges committee into whether he misled parliament over Partygate. Additionally, there are two by-elections coming up for parliament seats that were previously held by members of the Conservative Party. If the party loses those seats, it would also not bode well for Johnson.

Frank Langfitt reported from London; Bill Chappell reported from Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell
Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
Frank Langfitt
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.