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LONDON — One of his predecessors described him as a “greased piglet”: a man who could slip out of any tight situation.
And despite a damaging scandal involving parties during Britain’s coronavirus lockdown that brought him a fine and a stinging official report, Prime Minister Boris Johnson might have expected to be in a strong position.
Little more than two years ago, Mr. Johnson led the Conservative Party to its biggest election victory in decades. Until the next general election — on a date set by the prime minister, and potentially as late as January 2025 — only his own party’s lawmakers can force him out.
Here’s a guide to how he got here, and to the threats he still faces.
The trouble started with the ‘partygate’ affair.
Since late last year, Mr. Johnson has been grappling with a series of reports about parties in Downing Street, where British prime ministers both live and work, while Covid lockdown rules were in force. The scandal became known as “partygate.”
In May, a long-awaited internal inquiry by a senior civil servant, Sue Gray, found that 83 people violated the rules at parties, during which some drank heavily, fought with each other and damaged property. The London police said they had imposed 126 fines for breaches of social distancing.
Those fines came in a form akin to a speeding ticket — a “fixed penalty notice” — rather than a full prosecution. Mr. Johnson received only one, for a relatively sedate event, a surprise lunchtime birthday celebration, despite being present at several gatherings for which others were fined.
But in a country that banned almost all social contact for months and kept lesser, but still onerous, restrictions far longer, the claims of rule-breaking have packed an extraordinary emotional punch. Members of Parliament responded to Mr. Johnson’s initial denials of wrongdoing, and then to his apologies, with testimony from people who were barred from visiting dying relatives at the time of the gatherings.
Boris Johnson’s critics tried to force him out, and failed.
In Britain, it is hard to get rid of a prime minister, but far from impossible. The job goes to the leader of the political party with a parliamentary majority. The party can oust its leader and choose another one, changing prime ministers without a general election.
Under the Conservative Party’s rules, its members of Parliament can hold a binding vote of no confidence in Mr. Johnson if 15 percent of them — which currently means 54 lawmakers — write to formally request one. That moment came for Mr. Johnson on June 6, with a vote the same evening.
Mr. Johnson received 211 votes — just under 60 percent of his party’s 359 lawmakers — with 148 against him.
That’s a weaker result than it sounds, because almost half of those lawmakers also have government jobs that normally oblige them to back Mr. Johnson. This vote was a secret ballot, however, so it’s impossible to know if all of them did.
There’s also an asterisk on the other detail of the process that might sound reassuring for Mr. Johnson. Current Conservative rules say that he cannot face another party no-confidence vote for at least a year. But the party’s lawmakers set those rules. If a clear majority of them wanted him out, they could simply rewrite the rule book.
Cabinet ministers could still move against him.
Winning the no-confidence vote was essential, but it may not be enough. Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May were both out of office within a year of defeating a leadership challenge, by larger margins than Mr. Johnson.
July 6, 2022, 8:29 a.m. ET
One key factor is whether cabinet ministers rebel. The catalyst for Mrs. Thatcher’s demise in 1990 was the resignation of Geoffrey Howe, a disaffected former ally, and Mrs. May lost several ministers, including Mr. Johnson, who quit as foreign secretary in 2018.
So far, Mr. Johnson has largely maintained cabinet discipline. The most significant departure has been Oliver Dowden, a chairman of the Conservative Party who also attended cabinet meetings as a minister. After Conservatives lost two by-elections on June 23, he resigned and wrote to Mr. Johnson declaring: “We cannot carry on with business as usual. Somebody must take responsibility.”
But the minister once most frequently discussed as a potential successor to Mr. Johnson — the chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak — has himself suffered a fall from grace. He was fined for attending the same party as Mr. Johnson, and has also faced damaging reports around the tax status of his wealthy wife.
Or, he could succumb to quiet pressure.
Once this was known as a visit from the “men in gray suits,” a phrase dating from an age when all key power brokers were men. In those days, when a group known as the “magic circle” chose the Conservative leader, such bigwigs could withdraw support, too. And leaders can sometimes still be persuaded to depart on their own terms rather than be booted out.
There isn’t a clear successor.
One of the reasons Mr. Johnson’s fate is unpredictable is that there is no consensus on who would replace him, and therefore no single cabal plotting to remove him.
Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, is a leading contender. So, from outside the government, is Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary who lost to Mr. Johnson in the last Conservative leadership contest. Several others may run.
They all need to be careful. In the past, ambitious rivals have suffered from being seen as disloyal (though not Mr. Johnson, who opposed Mrs. May and then succeeded her). After Mr. Hunt said he would vote against Mr. Johnson in the no-confidence ballot, he received a furious response from a current minister accusing him of “duplicity.”
And none of Mr. Johnson’s potential successors have shown that they can match the appeal he demonstrated in leading the party to a landslide victory in 2019.
Mr. Johnson has bounced back before.
Escaping scrapes is one of the prime minister’s defining skills. His career has contained no shortage of dismissals and humiliations, each followed by triumph.
To escape again, Mr. Johnson needs to avert cabinet resignations and rebuild his reputation as a winner. He is seeking to rally Conservatives through a confrontation with the European Union over Northern Ireland, as well as a plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda. He can also draw on a rapport with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, formed through his early support for sending weapons to Kyiv.
But even more trouble is ahead.
Aside from the crisis over Downing Street parties, things look sticky for the government. Energy bills are soaring, inflation is spiking, and taxes and interest rates are up, too.
Opinion polls show a collapse of support for Mr. Johnson personally and suggest that he is dragging down his party.
The by-elections on June 23 were an ominous sign on that score. One was a northern English seat that returned to Labour after swinging behind Mr. Johnson in 2019. The other was in southern England, where Conservatives fear Mr. Johnson is alienating longstanding strongholds, and fell to the centrist Liberal Democrats.
Mr. Johnson became prime minister because his party correctly judged that he would win a general election. If it concludes that he will lose the next one, his days are numbered.
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