Boris Johnson used a cabinet meeting on Tuesday to urge ministers to move on from the highly damaging no-confidence vote in which 41 per cent of Tory MPs voted to oust him and refocus on practical issues.
Sajid Javid, the health secretary, addressed the cabinet on tackling NHS backlogs and improving health services. The prime minister, meanwhile, told cabinet ministers to find further departmental savings to shift spending towards households.
Johnson’s allies believe he is also planning a ministerial reshuffle to reward those who have remained loyal to him, while punishing those who have not. But Downing Street said on Tuesday that there were “no plans” for a reshuffle.
Johnson won Monday’s no-confidence vote of Tory MPs by 211 to 148 and told the cabinet the result had been “conclusive and decisive”.
But he was confronted by grim newspaper headlines. The Daily Telegraph, Johnson’s former employer, led its front page with the headline: “Hollow victory tears Tories apart” while Lord William Hague, one of his predecessors as party leader, used a column in the Times to call on the prime minister to quit.
Johnson received a boost on Tuesday morning when President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine told the Financial Times Global Boardroom conference that his survival was “great news”, adding: “I am glad we have not lost a very important ally.”
The prime minister and his allies attempted to portray the result as a moment when the party could bury its differences. But the vote exposed rancour and a breakdown in Tory discipline.
Johnson’s victory was by a slimmer margin than the one secured by his predecessor Theresa May in a no-confidence vote in 2018; she was forced to resign as prime minister six months later.
The biggest threat to Johnson now would be a series of resignations by ministers no longer willing to serve in his government, although so far there has been no sign of that happening.
Tobias Ellwood, Tory chair of the House of Commons defence select committee and a Johnson critic, said on Monday: “The days of honourable resignations are no longer there.”
Dominic Raab, deputy prime minister, told the BBC he had no intention of quitting. “I will always put first and foremost the good of the country,” he said, adding that that was best done by Johnson remaining in post.
He said he was confident the Conservatives could exceed the 80-seat majority secured by Johnson in the 2019 general election if the party united.
But some Tory MPs believe Monday’s vote starts the beginning of a long slide out of office for Johnson, who faces multiple looming challenges — including an autumn of high inflation and possible recession.
Hague, a former foreign secretary, wrote in The Times that the votes cast against Johnson’s leadership “show a greater level of rejection than any Tory leader has ever endured and survived”. He called for the prime minister to “turn his mind to getting out in a way that spares party and country such agonies and uncertainties”.
Johnson also faces a parliamentary inquiry into whether he lied to the Commons about the partygate scandal — gatherings in Downing Street during Covid restrictions while social events were banned — as well as two treacherous by-elections. The Tories are defending seats in Wakefield, and Tiverton and Honiton on June 23 and opinion polls have shown them lagging the opposition in both.
“The scale of the vote against the prime minister this evening is clear evidence that he no longer enjoys the full-hearted confidence of the parliamentary party and should consider his position,” said Julian Sturdy, one Tory backbencher.
Under current party rules, Johnson cannot face another no-confidence vote for 12 months, but senior Tories have said the rules could be changed with immediate effect.
Some Conservative MPs believe Johnson will never resign, no matter what electoral damage he might be causing. “He’s an existential threat to the Conservative party,” said one Tory backbencher.
A test of Johnson’s authority could come soon, with the publication expected in the coming days of draft legislation to rip up parts of the Northern Ireland protocol, part of the UK’s 2020 Brexit agreement with the EU.
Some Conservatives have already warned Johnson not to tear up an international treaty. If he pushes ahead with the legislation, the EU has said it will retaliate by shutting British scientists out of the €95bn Horizon research project.