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Boris Johnson is a weakened prime minister after the recent confidence vote by his party’s MPs. The view among many political analysts and academics is that the 211-148 vote in his favour is too damaging, and he is unlikely to turn things around. Some backbenchers expect him to be replaced by the summer – and lessons from academic research suggest they are right.
For many, Johnson was once a strong leader, at least during the first six months of his leadership. However, my own view of strong leadership is that it goes above and beyond delivering strong electoral results. As Eoin O'Malley and I have argued in our research on leadership, a strong party leader is both in control of the organisation of their party, and can set and articulate the party’s priorities.
According to this definition, Johnson was never a strong leader. He delivered a large electoral victory to the party, but lacked a clear vision and policy message. He has been unable to express the party’s vision and ideology, and to articulate what the Conservative party stands for beyond “get Brexit done”.
A strong leader gains control of the party because of the organisational, electoral and policy benefits they bring, which is why strong leaders often end up damaging their party electorally when they step down, as our research shows. Johnson has not taken any such control – if he had, he would not have suffered a vote of no confidence by 41% of his MPs.
Barely three years into his party leadership, Johnson’s authority is so damaged that it seems almost impossible for him to survive as PM to the next election.
Perhaps we got here because his MPs and voters distrust him due to partygate and other corruption allegations. This is not just down to bad luck, but his inability to unite the party behind him during his premiership – Conservative MPs have organised into different, quite polarising ideological groups.
As party leader, he should also connect with the public. Perhaps he did in 2019, but polls suggest that this is not the case any more.
Time to turn the page
The big question then is whether the Conservative party, and the country as a whole, are better off replacing Johnson or uniting behind him until the end of the government term.
A prime minister leading a deeply divided party is not able to govern successfully. Instead of being responsive to the public or staying true to the party’s electoral promises such as achieving net zero by 2050 or fixing social care, he is likely to adopt policies that primarily seek to appease the different Conservative party factions.
More likely, Johnson will be unable to initiate any policy at all. There are already suggestions that rebel Tory MPs will abstain from voting on key parts of Johnson’s legislative agenda.
Theresa May’s second government suffered from inaction due to party divisions. She stayed in office six months after winning a confidence vote, but ultimately resigned after failing to gain support for her Brexit agreement.
Johnson’s government is more likely to be one where money is sent to constituencies that serve party unity instead of the country’s and citizens’ needs. Research into Italian governments finds that when parties in government are divided, spending increases and policy reform is less likely.
In fact, there is speculation that party-motivated spending is already happening, with many of the funds dedicated for the government’s levelling-up agenda given to better-off constituencies of government ministers.
A day after the confidence vote, ministers and backbenchers from the right wing of the party called for drastic tax cuts and even demanded Johnson overrule his chancellor. With MPs from northern constituencies expecting investment and funding of projects as per the levelling-up agenda on the one hand and demands for tax cuts on the other, it becomes quite hard to balance the books.
Those optimistic about Johnson might argue he could unite the party behind a new vision for the country. This is extremely unlikely, as it would require Johnson appointing a cabinet that reflects the party’s views and divisions. Successful PMs did that – even strong leaders such as Margaret Thatcher. It has been shown that most British PMs have appointed cabinets that reflect the party’s ideological position rather than their own.
However, Johnson appointed his loyal supporters, people who stood by him during his leadership and pro-Brexit campaigns, and relies on their backing so is unlikely to replace them. If he cannot unite the party at the cabinet level, which he does control, he is unlikely to ever unite it across the legislative chamber.
Despina Alexiadou does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.