How, and why, Boris Johnson could lose his job as U.K. prime minister

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One of his lawmakers calls him a “dead man walking.” Another, once a Cabinet colleague, stood up in Parliament to tell him: “In the name of God, go.” And one has even switched sides to the main opposition party.

Two years ago, Prime Minister Boris Johnson led the Conservative Party to its biggest election victory in decades. Now, after apologizing for attending a party at No. 10 Downing Street during Britain’s first and fiercest coronavirus lockdown, and then for two other gatherings held by his aides under different restrictions as the queen prepared to bury her husband, Johnson is in big trouble.

Here is a guide to just how much trouble, and what could happen next.

This is about much more than a few drinks in a garden.

Last week, Johnson apologized for attending a gathering in May 2020 that apparently violated the lockdown rules he had imposed on England. The party was held in the garden of No. 10 Downing Street and staff were asked to “bring your own booze.”

Johnson said he thought it was a work event, but that did little to mollify critics.

Then, the following day, Johnson’s spokesperson announced that his office had “apologized to the palace” for two further parties held at the residence without the prime minister present in April 2021, the night before the queen sat alone at a socially distanced funeral for her husband, Prince Philip.

These were the latest in a series of reports about parties in Downing Street while restrictions were in force, claims that have depressed the Conservatives’ opinion-poll ratings and led to the tearful resignation of an aide who was caught on video laughing about a Christmas “wine and cheese” gathering. A senior civil servant, Sue Gray, has been assigned to investigate reports of no fewer than seven parties that might have breached rules in 2020.

The two apologies deepened the crisis for several reasons.

First, after insisting for weeks that all rules were followed, Johnson admitted being present at an event to which dozens of people appear to have been invited, at a time when the restrictions prohibited socializing with more than one other person, even outside, in almost all circumstances. Some lawmakers responded to Johnson’s statement in Parliament with testimony from people who were barred from visiting dying relatives.

The next admissions brought in both the royal family and a restriction that was keenly felt well into 2021: limits on attendance at funerals. The Daily Telegraph, which broke the news of the April parties, accompanied its report with a photograph of the queen sitting alone at the ceremony for her husband.

Johnson’s lawmakers could simply force him out.

In Britain it is hard to get rid of a serving prime minister, but far from impossible. The nation’s top 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 Johnson if 54 of them write to formally request one. The request letters are confidential.

So far, eight Conservative members of Parliament have publicly called on Johnson to quit, one of whom, Christian Wakeford, then announced that he had left the Conservatives and joined the opposition Labour Party.

Only one senior lawmaker knows how many have written letters, and he would only make the number public if it reached the threshold for a challenge.

In a no-confidence vote, held by secret ballot, Johnson would keep his job by winning a simple majority of Conservative lawmakers. He would then be safe from another such challenge for a year unless the rules were changed.

His Cabinet could fatally undermine him.

Cabinet rebellions destabilize prime ministers and can prove crucial in pushing them toward the exit. The catalyst for Margaret Thatcher’s demise in 1990 was the resignation of Geoffrey Howe, a disaffected former ally, and Theresa May lost several ministers — including Johnson himself, who quit as foreign secretary in 2018.

As prime minister, Johnson has more or less maintained Cabinet discipline so far. But one senior minister, former Brexit negotiator David Frost, quit late last year, citing policy differences.

And a minister frequently discussed as Johnson’s potential successor, Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the Exchequer, waited several hours to express lukewarm support for the prime minister after Johnson’s first apology and cut short a television interview while being asked about Johnson’s position.

Or, Johnson 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 Party leader, such bigwigs could withdraw support, too, and ask the prime minister to resign. Nowadays things aren’t quite like that, but leaders can still be persuaded to depart on their own terms and keep a measure of dignity, rather than risk being booted out.

May resigned in 2019, after surviving a leadership vote, when it was clear that her position had become hopeless. Similar pressure, accompanied by ministerial resignations, was used to evict Tony Blair, the Labour Party prime minister, from Downing Street in 2007.

The fatal blow, if it comes, may be months away.

Timing a coup is never easy. Critics are unlikely to force a confidence vote until they think Johnson is damaged enough to lose. That point may be near but, critically, there is no consensus on who would replace Johnson and therefore no single cabal orchestrating a challenge.

Sunak is the front-runner and Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, is a leading contender, but several others would be likely to run. They all need to be careful. In the past, ambitious rivals have suffered from being seen as disloyal to the prime minister (though not Johnson, who opposed May and then succeeded her).

For most Conservative lawmakers the question is whether a change would help them. None of his potential successors have shown they can match the appeal he demonstrated in leading the party to a landslide victory in 2019.

Most Conservative lawmakers seem to be waiting for Gray’s internal inquiry before deciding which way to jump. Despite a reputation for independence, she is in a rare and awkward position — an unelected civil servant compiling a report that could prove terminal for her elected boss. So some analysts expect her to restrict her findings to facts she establishes without making a direct judgment on Johnson’s conduct.

Johnson has bounced back before.

Escaping scrapes is one of the prime minister’s defining skills. A Conservative former prime minister, David Cameron, once described Johnson as the “greased piglet” of politics: His career has contained no shortage of dismissals and humiliations, each followed by a greater triumph.

To slip out of this tight corner, Johnson needs to avert Cabinet resignations and prevent a rush of letters demanding a no-confidence vote. On Wednesday, he appeared to gain some breathing space with an announcement ending Britain’s remaining COVID-19 restrictions — a popular cause with his party’s lawmakers.

Johnson will then hope that Gray’s report is diplomatic enough for him to survive, albeit after another apology and a purge of his team.

But he might have even more trouble ahead.

Aside from the crisis over Downing Street parties, things look sticky for the government. Energy bills are soaring, inflation is spiking and interest rates have risen just as Johnson is about to raise taxes.

Johnson’s enemies are circling and Sunak and Truss are maneuvering. In May the Conservatives face local elections that will test Johnson’s popularity. Opinion polls show a collapse of support for him personally and suggest that he is now dragging his party down. Some recent surveys put the Conservatives 10 or more points behind the Labour opposition.

Johnson became prime minister in 2019 because his party correctly judged that he would win them a general election. If it concludes that he will lose them the next one, his days are numbered.

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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