There are two questions for Britain’s Conservative Members of Parliament today, as Boris Johnson, their party’s leader, faces a vote of no confidence. One: do they believe that the prime minister will cost them or save them their seats at the next general election? Two: how pernicious to confidence in the important institutions of government is the widespread perception that the politician at its apex is dishonest?
The first question is about the future of the Tory party. The other is about the future of the UK. They are of course linked. Tory critics of Mr. Johnson say that he is now, in the words of one, “our Jeremy Corbyn,” by which they mean large numbers of potential Conservative voters will never again vote for their party while he is leader.
But Mr. Johnson’s supporters say he is the most formidable campaigner their party has known in the modern era, and if anyone can turn round the ailing fortunes of the Tories it is him.
The prime minister hopes that by beating the no confidence vote, he can draw a line under the scandal referred to as “Partygate,” which revealed that Johnson and members of his staff had been having parties in 10 Downing Street during lockdown, in breach of the restrictions that he himself had set.
The widespread expectation is that Johnson will win tonight. But no Tory MP to whom I have spoken believes he can stay prime minister for more than a few days if he were to win by just a single vote — despite what his spokespeople say. Being supported by just over half of his MPs is no mandate because it would mean that the vast majority of backbench MPs – who do not owe their ministerial jobs to his goodwill — would be against him.
But if he secures two-thirds of the vote, he’s safe in the job at least for a year — the time limit before another vote can be held — and possibly till at least the next general election. It is in that no man’s land of Johnson winning somewhere between a half and two-thirds of the vote where the Tory party would have a dilemma — to decide whether or not he retains sufficient authority.
And if you hear anyone in the coming hours forecasting the result with apparent certainty, you are listening to a fool or a propagandist. We are about to witness a secret ballot of a tiny electorate most of whom have a powerful motive to lie about how they plan to vote.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.