LONDON: Britain’s embattled Prime Minister Boris Johnson vowed on Tuesday to plough on with policy priorities including the economy and Ukraine, but was urged by a Conservative predecessor to quit and save the nation from further “agonies”.
Addressing his cabinet a day after narrowly fending off a no-confidence vote from his own Conservative MPs, Johnson said: “We’re able now to draw a line under the issues that our opponents want to talk about.”
But most critics and commentators disagreed, with many characterising the margin of his win — 211 votes to 148 — as a “Pyrrhic” victory that left the Tory leader drained of much authority.
Johnson’s former employers at the Daily Telegraph branded it “a hollow victory that tears Tories apart”.
“Party’s over, Boris,” headlined the Daily Mirror, in a nod to a series of lockdown-busting parties held in Downing Street, which saw Johnson fined by police and drew outrage from voters.
The prime minister’s team tried to regain the offensive by pointing to a setpiece speech expected in the coming days on new economic support measures, as Britons struggle with a cost-of-living crisis.
The government is also expected to introduce new legislation to unilaterally walk away from its post-Brexit commitments on Northern Ireland, placating some right-wingers but likely infuriating the European Union.
However, a cabinet reshuffle to replenish his team of Brexit loyalists is not “currently” on the cards, Johnson’s spokesman said.
Nor is a snap general election, the prime minister said after the vote, pointing to the pressing need for government unity in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Britain has been at the forefront of European military support for the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who spoke by phone to Johnson in the hours before Monday’s Conservative ballot.
At an online event on Tuesday hosted by the Financial Times, Zelensky said he was “very happy” that Johnson had survived the vote.
“Boris Johnson is a true friend of Ukraine,” the president added, speaking through a translator.
But at home, many question whether Johnson can recover voters’ trust, as the party braces for two Westminster by-elections this month and an upcoming investigation by MPs into whether he lied to parliament over “Partygate”.
Even without any obvious candidate to succeed him, former Tory party leader William Hague argued that Johnson should now “look for an honourable exit”.
Comparing Monday’s margin to votes that ultimately toppled Johnson’s predecessors Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, Hague said it showed “a greater level of rejection than any Tory leader has ever endured and survived”.
“Deep inside, he should recognise that, and turn his mind to getting out in a way that spares party and country such agonies and uncertainties,” Hague wrote in The Times.
But in his personal life, populist politics and bombastic style, Johnson is unlike previous Conservative leaders, and his camp spent Monday arguing that even a majority of one would suffice.
Johnson, 57, needed the backing of 180 of the 359 Conservatives MPs to survive the vote.
Most of Johnson’s cabinet publicly backed him in the secret ballot. But more than 40 percent of the parliamentary party did not.
Under current Tory rules, the prime minister cannot be challenged again for a year, which leaves little time for any new leader to emerge before the next general election due by 2024.
But the party’s “1922 committee” of MPs, tasked with overseeing leadership challenges, says it could easily change the rules if a majority backs it.
Senior backbencher Tobias Ellwood, who voted against Johnson, said the prime minister should revamp his cabinet to “bring in fresh talent and actually start to focus on the big issues”.
But Ellwood said Johnson was likely to ignore such advice and faced being kicked out before long.
“I think we’re talking a matter of months, up to party conference (in October),” he told Sky News.