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Boris Johnson may find out the hard way that Tories are nothing if not ruthless

Johnson wouldn’t be the first if he’s forced to resign by his own party.

london-uk-12th-jan-2022-prime-minister-boris-johnson-leaves-for-prime-ministers-questions-he-will-face-questions-from-sir-keir-starmer-about-a-party-in-downing-street-in-may-2020-credit-mark Boris Johnson leaving Downing Street this week. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

BORIS JOHNSON IS fighting for his political life.

That much we know after a week in which the boozy culture in Downing Street during lockdown became even more clear

One count places the number of reported parties in the heart of his government at 12. The latest of which was perhaps the most raucous, involving the late-night breaking of a child’s swing. 

Johnson wasn’t at that specific bash but it might not matter, the wheels may already be off his rather unstable administration.

Before he became Prime Minister, Johnson crafted a persona for himself over almost 30 years in the public eye. He showed an apparently hapless but harmless figure that was always ready to poke fun at himself.

It would only be slightly unfair to say that he was seen as a likeable idiot. A persona that allowed him to dodge numerous other controversies that would have buried most other politicians, or indeed journalists.

It allowed him to be seen as more of a celebrity than a real politician.   

The problem with is that, while these qualities will sustain you long enough to be a regular on a panel shows and win you mayoral and even general elections, a persona is not enough during a time of national crisis. 

This is what the UK and indeed the Conservative party is now grappling with. 

Johnson cruised to victory in a Tory leadership contest in July 2019. Following that, a simple pro-Brexit message, his own personal brand and a disunited Labour party saw him win a thumping election that following December

What Johnson may now learn is that his popularity among his party only extends to his ability to win them votes. A useful faux idiot he may be no more. 

The Tories are nothing if not ruthless in deposing a previously adored leader should it suit their interests. 

former-conservative-prime-minister-baroness-margaret-thatcher-leaves-downing-street-after-meeting-with-david-cameron-london-8 Thatcher leaves Downing Street after a meeting with David Cameron in 2010. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Margaret Thatcher, the party’s most significant figure since Winston Churchill, learnt that lesson. 

Thatcher famously declared “I fight on, I fight to win” as she battled a challenge from Michael Heseltine in 1990, only to stand down after senior Tories advised her she was heading for defeat.

Thatcher defeated Heseltine by 204 to 152 in a vote of Tory MPs after he challenged her position but the margin was not wide enough to avoid a second ballot.

Facing defeat in the second ballot, the woman who won three successive elections for her party was cast out. Thatcher remains the only prime minister to be removed from office by a party leadership ballot among her own MPs.

Tory Prime Minister John Major himself called a “back-me-or-sack-me” contest in 1995, resigning as leader to fight for the job after coming under pressure from rebels over Europe.

He easily saw off his challenger John Redwood by 218 votes to 89 and went on to lead the Tories into the 1997 general election, resigning after his landslide defeat to Tony Blair.

During the Blair/Brown years of Labour government the Tories had four leaders while in opposition.  

William Hague resigned after electoral defeat in 2001, as did Michael Howard in 2005. 

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In between them, Iain Duncan Smith was defeated in a confidence vote by the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, which organises the ballots.

london-uk-uk-18th-feb-2019-british-prime-minister-theresa-may-is-seen-breaking-into-tears-as-she-made-a-statement-in-downing-street-after-meeting-graham-brady-the-chair-of-1922-committee-theres Theresa May in tears as she announcing her intention to resign in 2018. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

David Cameron famously left of his own accord after the Brexit referendum but Theresa May’s fate may be the freshest in people’s minds.  

Hampered by the snap election which slashed her parliamentary majority, May was ultimately doomed by an inability to maneuver Brexit through parliament.  

In late 2018 she survived a confidence vote in the 1922 Committee by 200 votes to 117.

The rules of the committee meant another confidence couldn’t be held for a year but, as ministers quit her government, the committee threatened to change the rules to hold one anyway. 

Facing extreme pressure, including from Johnson, May ultimately agreed to quit as leader.

Johnson now faces the possibility of a similar vote but we’re not quite there yet. For a vote to take place, 15% of Tory MPs must write to committee chair Graham Brady requesting one. 

For Johnson, that means 54 MPs have to want him out enough to hold a vote. If a vote takes place, a straight majority of 160 Tory MPs could remove him as leader. 

It might not get that far as Johnson may decide to quit to avoid the ignominy of defeat. 

Of course, he may just survive too but it’s not really for him to decide.

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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