Boris Johnson was last night clinging to power after a record proportion of Tory MPs voted against him in a confidence ballot.
he British prime minister secured the support of 211 Tories, against 148 rebels, prompting him to declare it was time to “move on” from the issue.
But the scale of those who voted against Mr Johnson’s leadership was higher than expected and revealed the deep disillusionment among scores of Tory MPs.
The size of the rebellion is greater than those faced by Theresa May, John Major and Margaret Thatcher in similar votes.
The vote means that 41pc of Conservative MPs do not have confidence in Mr Johnson’s leadership.
There are between 160 and 170 MPs on the government payroll, meaning only around 40 backbenchers are likely to have expressed support.
Last night, Mr Johnson claimed the result had been “very good”, “convincing” and “decisive”, insisting it was time to move on from Tory in-fighting.
He said: “I think this is a very good result for politics and for the country. I think it’s a convincing result, a decisive result. And what it means is that as a government we can move on and focus on the stuff that I think really matters to people.”
It came after a bruising day that had seen him plead with Tory MPs to keep him in No 10 by promising tax cuts and insisting he was still a vote winner.
Yet scores of Conservatives still went public with calls for a resignation, citing Partygate and the cost of living crisis.
The first leadership challengers to Mr Johnson also emerged, with former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt announcing he would vote against the prime minister.
Mr Johnson faces a looming set of hurdles, including two by-elections before the end of the month and a report by MPs into whether he broke the ministerial code over Partygate in the autumn.
Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, last night said a “divided” Tory party was “propping up” the prime minister.
Mr Johnson will attempt to draw a line under the saga today as he addresses his cabinet, most of whom issued public statements of support within hours of the vote being called.
He will announce an expansion of Mrs Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ policy as early as Thursday as he seeks to deliver on promises of more traditional Tory measures.
A string of economic interventions – including a joint speech with Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to put on a united front – are being organised for later in the month.
A cabinet reshuffle, mentioned to rebels yesterday by party whips as they scrambled to keep wavering MPs on side, also remains a possibility.
Downing Street had framed the vote as the chance for the Mr Johnson to “put the distraction of the last months” behind them, but that is by no means guaranteed.
However, Tory rebels have privately indicated that they are unlikely to give up their push to remove the prime minister before the next election. The scale of concern among Tory members will be a challenge. Two snap surveys yesterday put the proportion who want Mr Johnson gone at 42pc and 55pc.
Mr Johnson will also be under pressure to show in the coming months that he can – as he told the 1922 Committee yesterday – win the next general election, which is expected in 2024.
The Tories have consistently trailed Labour in opinion polling since the first reports of Covid lockdown-breaking gatherings in Downing Street emerged late last year.
The prime minister will also have to contend with leadership rivals on manoeuvres, given the increased possibility he could be toppled before the next election.
Mr Hunt, who came second to Mr Johnson in the 2019 leadership race, had said earlier: “Today’s decision is change or lose. I will be voting for change.”
Mr Hunt’s remarks were widely seen as an indication he hopes to succeed Mr Johnson. Supporters of Mr Hunt have said that some sitting cabinet ministers have privately pledged their support to him if a public leadership contest breaks out.
The Telegraph reported last night that Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, was considering standing in a leadership race if Mr Johnson is removed from office.
For months, polls of party members have rated Mr Wallace the most popular cabinet minister following his central role in the UK response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Penny Mordaunt, the trade minister tipped for a leadership run, said yesterday that Mr Johnson had never been her choice for prime minister – while also not calling on him to go.
Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, Sajid Javid, the health secretary, Mr Sunak and Mr Zahawi would all be expected to stand if Mr Johnson stood aside.
Recent Conservative Party history suggests that even those leaders who survive a confidence vote do not remain in post for long.
Theresa May, who won a confidence vote in December 2018, was gone by July 2019. Margaret Thatcher resigned despite winning the backing of a majority of Tory MPs in 1990. John Major won a confidence vote in 1995, but in the 1997 general election the Conservatives suffered a landslide defeat.
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