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Boris Johnson’s political future is in the balance as he awaits the result of the confidence vote on his leadership.
Votes are being counted following the secret ballot of the 359 Tory MPs, with the result due at 9pm.
While it would be a major shock if the Tory critics managed to secure the 180 votes required to oust the party leader, his authority would be severely damaged if a significant number of his own MPs have lost confidence in him.
The Prime Minister promised future tax cuts and highlighted his own record of electoral success as he sought to win over wavering MPs.
But with concern over the partygate scandal, economic policy, drifting opinion polls and Mr Johnson’s style of leadership, the Prime Minister faced a difficult task to persuade his doubters.
The ballot was triggered after at least 54 MPs – 15% of the party’s representatives in the Commons – said they had no confidence in the Prime Minister.
Mr Johnson wrote to Tory MPs and addressed them at a private meeting in Westminster in the hours before voting began.
He told the meeting that “under my leadership” the party had won its biggest electoral victory in 40 years, and pledged future tax cuts, with Chancellor Rishi Sunak expected to say more in the coming weeks.
He warned them that Tory splits risked the “utter disaster” of Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour entering Downing Street, propped up by the SNP.
“The only way we will let that happen is if we were so foolish as to descend into some pointless fratricidal debate about the future of our party,” he said.
He told Tory MPs “I understand the anxieties of people who have triggered this vote” but “I humbly submit to you that this is not the moment for a leisurely and entirely unforced domestic political drama and months and months of vacillation from the UK”.
In an attempt to win round low-tax Tories, Mr Johnson said: “The way out now is to drive supply side reform on Conservative principles and to cut taxes.”
The Prime Minister took five questions during the meeting, two of which were “hostile”, a senior party source said.
Tory former chief whip Mark Harper said that if the PM stayed in post he would be asking MPs to “defend the indefensible”.
Emerging from the meeting, Foreign Office minister James Cleverly said Mr Johnson’s address had been “light on jokes”, with the Prime Minister in “serious mode”.
He said he expected the Prime Minister to win, as the alternative was a “protracted period of introspection”.
The Prime Minister was informed on Sunday that he would face the vote.
Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, confirmed he had received the letters from Conservative MPs needed to trigger the ballot on Sunday, with a “clear indication” that there would be more to come following the conclusion of the Platinum Jubilee festivities.
A steady stream of Tory MPs called publicly for the Prime Minister to stand down in the wake of Sue Gray’s report into breaches of the Covid regulations in No 10 and Whitehall.
And because we are no longer trusted by the electorate, who know this too, we are set to lose the next general election.
— Jeremy Hunt (@Jeremy_Hunt) June 6, 2022
But Tory concerns go far wider, covering the Prime Minister’s policies, which have seen the tax burden reach the highest in 70 years, and concerns about his style of politics.
Mr Johnson has already received the resignation of his anti-corruption tsar, John Penrose, who said the Prime Minister had breached the ministerial code over the partygate scandal and should quit.
Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said he would be voting against Mr Johnson, having heard “loud and clear the anger at the breaking of Covid rules” and “even more so at the statements to Parliament from the Prime Minister on this topic”.
Having listened closely to people in Moray who re-elected me and people across Scotland, tonight I will support the motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister. pic.twitter.com/YXE0rEyvsn
— Douglas Ross MP MSP (@Douglas4Moray) June 6, 2022
Further signs of Scottish discontent came with the resignation of John Lamont as a ministerial aide and former Scottish secretary David Mundell saying it was time for a “fresh start”.
Ex-foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, who stood against Mr Johnson for the leadership in 2019, warned that the Tories would lose the next general election if the Prime Minister is allowed to remain in post.
“Having been trusted with power, Conservative MPs know in our hearts we are not giving the British people the leadership they deserve,” he said.
Former minister Jesse Norman, who had been a long-standing supporter of Mr Johnson, published a scathing letter to the Prime Minister, saying the Gray report showed Mr Johnson “presided over a culture of casual law-breaking at 10 Downing Street”.
But his criticism of Mr Johnson was far broader, including the “ugly” policy of sending migrants on a one-way trip to Rwanda, the “unnecessary and provocative” privatisation of Channel 4, the ban on noisy protests which “no genuinely Conservative government” should have introduced, and the lack of a “sense of mission” in his administration.
Supporters of Mr Johnson mounted a determined effort to bolster his position, with a string of ministers appearing on the airwaves and social media posts from loyal MPs.
Brexit opportunities minister Jacob Rees-Mogg said victory by a single vote would secure Mr Johnson’s job.
“One is enough, it’s no good saying that the rules of the party say something and then behind it unofficially there is some other rule that nobody knows and is invented for the purpose,” he told Sky News.
“I obviously want the Prime Minister to get as big a majority as possible, I think that would be helpful and it would close this matter down between now and the next general election, which would be good for the country, good for the Conservative Party, but one is enough.”
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said a single-vote win “is victory”.
“We live in a democracy and it’s absolutely right that a democratic decision is what we respect,” he said.
Attorney General Suella Braverman said “technically, yes” a single vote win would be enough for Mr Johnson to continue, but “I’m sure that he will win with a larger margin than that”.
But in reality a major revolt would leave him damaged, perhaps fatally so, particularly with two by-elections on June 23 which could see further blows delivered to his leadership.