Voices: Boris Johnson is holed below the waterline

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Boris Johnson is in the middle of the grey zone of neither winning decisively nor losing  (AP)
Boris Johnson is in the middle of the grey zone of neither winning decisively nor losing (AP)

Worse than Theresa May. That is not a comparison Boris Johnson wanted made, but his confidence vote was worse than hers, which she also “won”, in 2018. Johnson has lost the majority of his backbenchers and more than 40 per cent of the whole parliamentary party. For all the bravado beforehand about one vote being enough, he knew he had to win by an emphatic margin, and he knows now that this is not it.

Winning by 211 votes to 148 is in the middle of the grey zone of neither winning decisively nor losing. This is the result that Keir Starmer wanted: keeping Johnson afloat, but holed below the waterline and sinking slowly. Who knows how much more damage the prime minister can inflict on the Tory party’s reputation before he goes?

Never mind all the mythology about the Conservative Party’s ruthlessness. It is not easy to be ruthless when you cannot be sure what your fellow conspirators are doing. A secret letter-writing campaign to trigger a secret ballot is a difficult system to organise, for or against the leader. If MPs had known what the result was going to be, they might have voted differently. Then, they might have been ruthless and decided to get rid of the prime minister straight away.

As it was, enough of them voted as if he could survive and recover. The result is the opposite of ruthless, a willingness to wound but not to kill, and a result that speaks volumes of a divided, undecided party.

The outcome is that the prime minister will carry on, with the weight of those 148 votes of no confidence holding him back. They will be coming for him again, he knows. And he knows that the rule against another vote of confidence in the next 12 months is an intangible protection. The 1922 Committee would have scrapped it to get rid of May within a few months of her vote of confidence if she hadn’t pre-announced her resignation as a desperate last ploy to try to get her Brexit deal through the Commons.

Johnson and his tormentors are both victims of bad timing. His opponents triggered this confidence vote just as the consensus was forming that he would have to go, but before it had set.

The consensus that Johnson is now a liability to the Conservative Party is half-formed, but it extends across both main parties. YouGov published a poll of Tory members today which revealed that a narrow majority wanted Johnson to stay, but that they tended to think that if he went, the party would do better at the next election. Loyalty is not quite dead in the modern Conservative Party, then.

Equally, it was striking talking to Labour MPs today – as they mingled with journalists in Westminster, because they, like us, are spectators in a Tory drama – that when they are being honest they admit that they would rather Johnson stayed. Tory members and Labour MPs agree: the Tory party would do better at the next election under a different leader, without knowing who that might be.

Some Labour MPs say they feel the bad blood in the Tory party is good for them whatever the outcome, and there is something in that. But if forced to choose between Johnson staying and Johnson going, they tend to think that keeping him is their best bet.

All this year, Johnson has been generating quotes that Labour can use in their election material. Not just the NHS poster, “Look her in the eyes and tell her you never bend the rules,” but all the things Tory MPs have said about the prime minister in the run-up to the confidence vote. Today alone we had a Tory MP, even if it was John Penrose and even if he had the tinpot title of anti-corruption tsar until he relinquished it this morning, saying the prime minister hadn’t told the truth to parliament. Before that we had Jesse Norman, a recent minister, accusing Johnson of “trying to import elements of a presidential system of government”, and saying the country cannot afford to “squander the next two years adrift and distracted by endless debate about you and your leadership”.

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And after that, Nadine Dorries, a cabinet minister, had a go at Jeremy Hunt, now a publicly declared enemy of the prime minister, in personal and political terms. That level of internal division is unsustainable in a governing party.

When he became prime minister, many thought Johnson wouldn’t last 100 days, because that was the deadline – 31 October 2019 – he had set to get Britain out of the EU. But he succeeded, winning a majority of 80, and seemed set fair for a long stint in No 10. Now the rollercoaster has dived again.

Today, he has survived as prime minister as long as Gordon Brown, nearly three years. He has to last until August to overtake Theresa May (three years and 11 days). Who would have thought, when he won the general election, that he would face that comparison?

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