The UK’s Conservatives need to find a new leader

If ever there was a Pyrrhic victory, Boris Johnson’s win in last week’s no-confidence vote must qualify. Britain’s prime minister secured the majority he needed to hang on, if he decides to, but by the surprisingly narrow margin of 211 votes to 148. More than 40% of his own party in Parliament told him to go.

In a similar challenge in 2018, his predecessor Theresa May prevailed by a bigger margin — and was out in six months. In 1990, Margaret Thatcher was also opposed by roughly 40% of her parliamentary colleagues — and promptly resigned. Later this month Johnson’s party faces brutal setbacks in two by-elections.


Ahead of those votes, the polls could hardly be worse. Johnson’s net approval rating, at minus 45%, makes President Joe Biden’s minus 13% look golden.

The prime minister’s threadbare authority within his own party, let alone the country at large, is now completely shot.

There’s little mystery about why this is so.

In 2019 Johnson, with unstinting help from the shambolic Labour opposition, led his party to a sweeping victory in the general election. Since then, the government has run up a dismaying catalog of broken promises and bungled initiatives. Johnson’s erratic mismanagement of the Brexit calamity is the most consequential — a mess that continues to go from bad to worse.

Having signed and boasted about a deal with the European Union to avoid reimposing trade barriers on the island of Ireland, he now threatens to renege, and blithely contemplates the possibility of trade war with the EU.

The government has gone to and fro on its economic and political priorities, leaving everybody confused about what it intends. Its response to Covid-19 has been characterized throughout by Johnson’s trademark blend of bluster and incompetence — one day denouncing measures proposed by critics, the next embracing them as his own. The impression of rudderless incoherence has been unrelenting.

On top of all this came proof of arrogance and dishonesty during the so-called Partygate scandal. While the government said it was fighting the pandemic by imposing — and strictly enforcing — stringent restrictions on social gatherings, the prime minister and his officials were attending events that they themselves had deemed illegal.

The most recent revelations about this, in a report by a senior civil servant, make it hard to believe that Johnson didn’t simply lie about it. Nearly 80% of voters think he did.

Johnson’s allies have been putting a brave face on it. His margin of victory was “comfortable,” said one.

The prime minister, they hope, might now draw a line and move on. This is unlikely, but not impossible. Up to now, the prime minister has been tenacious under fire.

Lucky, too.

If the Tory rebels had called their vote later in the month, after an expected drubbing in the Wakefield and Tiverton by-elections, it might well have gone the other way.

In any event, a determination to hang on in the face of such disapproval is unlikely to serve the party’s interests, much less the country’s.

The best case for retaining Johnson’s services is that, for the moment, there’s no obvious successor.

Last Monday’s embarrassment tells the party they’d better find one.

— Bloomberg Opinion

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