Some say Boris Johnson’s epitaph was written on Monday. Even though the British prime minister won, no prime minister has ever really won a no-confidence vote, in the final analysis. Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May, for example, was out of office within six months of her “win” of a no-confidence vote. The handwriting, as they say, is on the wall.
Johnson won the backing of 211 out of 359 Conservative lawmakers in a secret ballot, more than the simple majority he needed to remain in power, but still a significant rebellion of 148 members of Parliament. It’s those 148 MPs who will be the problem. Johnson now leads a fractured party, and those defecting MPs could easily turn him into a figurehead prime minister with no real power at all.
The challenge to Johnson’s leadership came as the result of revelations that he and his staff repeatedly threw illegal parties during Covid lockdowns. That spawned fury among the British people and deep unease among many Conservatives.
While it is undoubtedly party loyalty that has kept Johnson from being ejected from office, the Conservatives of the British Parliament are far less uniformly partisan than their almost monolithic American counterparts in Congress. After all, 40% of Conservative MPs have rejected their own leader. So large a defection couldn’t happen among American Republican lawmakers, at least, not given its current composition.
There is a stark contrast between British conservatism and American conservatism. In Britain a conservative is a person who votes a certain way and holds certain old-fashioned ideas. In America a conservative is a member of a cult. American conservatism is very often tied to religion. In Britain, while many Tories are fond members of the Church of England, many are also atheists. No one really cares.
Even so, Johnson’s intractable refusal to resign after being criminally charged with breaking lockdown is something of a departure from the way things are usually done in Britain and may be a leading indicator of things to come. Britain could in time begin to resemble America more and more in its partisan lust for power at the expense of everything else.
But it’s remarkable how swift and terrible the blowback was, and how it very nearly toppled Boris Johnson’s regime. Perhaps America can learn something from it while the contrast between the two governments remains stark. One can easily imagine a scene, during his presidency, of a hypothetical situation where Donald Trump violated lockdown and attended a succession of parties. It probably wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.