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The phone call that Boris Johnson was bracing for finally came as he was preparing for Sunday’s Platinum Jubilee finale. Conservative Party grandee Graham Brady confirmed that more than 15% of the prime minister’s own MPs had submitted letters of no-confidence. A vote on his future was imminent.

For hours, though, Johnson was unable to react. Instead he sat looking untroubled in a makeshift royal box near Buckingham Palace watching a parade of soldiers, James Bond cars and celebrity bakers celebrate the Queen’s 70 years on the throne. A couple of seats away sat Labour leader Keir Starmer, unaware of the new threat to his political rival.

The four-day Jubilee extravaganza came after months of meticulous planning. By contrast, the quickfire Conservative leadership vote was the result of months of unease over Johnson’s conduct that boiled into anger at “partygate” — revelations of illegal gatherings in Downing Street during the pandemic.

The prime minister ended up winning the confidence motion by 211 votes to 148. But four out of 10 Conservative MPs voted against their own leader — a humiliating blow. Now Johnson is attempting a reset of his premiership — the latest in a long line of reboots — even as the cost-of-living crisis bites ever-deeper and a pair of dangerous local elections threaten to bring more bad news.

But that might not be enough. One senior MP said he wasn’t surprised by the scale of the rebellion because anger toward Johnson — crucially, from all wings of the party — has been building for months.

The result could be a quick resumption of debilitating backbiting. “He is now fighting for his survival day in, day out,” former Conservative cabinet minister Rory Stewart told the BBC on Thursday night.

Jane Green, professor of British politics at Nuffield College, University of Oxford, warned that Johnson would never fully regain his popular appeal. “A recovery in the prime minister’s ratings would defy all political odds and gravity,” she said.

“The only thing in his favor is that he might still be preferred to other leaders among Leave voters. But many now won’t forgive him. The stakes couldn’t be higher for him to meet their expectations and hopes on Brexit.”

Supermarket Despair

It was only on May 25 that Johnson insisted a final “partygate” report by civil servant Sue Gray cleared him of further blame. Yet the mood of Tory MPs tipped during a week-long break from Parliament ahead of the Jubilee. Many found only anger and outrage in their constituencies.

One former minister told Bloomberg he knew the tables had turned when long-term supporters accosted him about Johnson in the local supermarket, apologizing but saying they could no longer vote Conservative.

By Monday, the morning after calling Johnson, Brady was on a chilly Westminster green announcing that evening’s vote. The quick turnaround ratcheted up the tensions. Downing Street’s arm-twisting would include Johnson writing three-page letters to every Tory MP, individually signed.

The eventual rejection by 41% of them clearly hurt the prime minister, who looked “shell-shocked” after the vote, according to Andrew Gimson, author of Boris: The Making of the Prime Minister. Only hours earlier, Johnson addressed backbench Tory MPs, imploring them to support them.

“He’d made his pitch and it hadn’t been good enough for so many of them,” Gimson said. “Of course, he’s quite determined to power on through it and recover and mend fences — but you can see in his face he recognized it was a tremendous rejection by a large part of the party.”

Johnson is already determined to — as he put it on Monday — “bash on.” He unveiled a scattergun series of policy announcements on Thursday, mostly intended as red meat for Conservative voters and MPs, including plans to allow people to use benefits to buy homes and a vow to cut taxes “sooner rather than later.”

Yet the housing plans were instantly blasted by critics as unworkable, while the pledge to make his government a more traditional, low-tax Conservative administration lacked credibility because the UK tax burden is currently on track to be its highest since the 1950s — including recent increases brought in on Johnson’s watch.

While some plans are criticized as ill-thought-through, others are being delayed. Legislation designed to override the Brexit deal relating to Northern Ireland has been pushed back to Monday amid concerns that it breaches international law. The date of a joint speech on the economy from Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak looks set to slip to next month.

Meanwhile Westminster buzzes with chatter of a looming ministerial reshuffle, with those who failed to back him strongly enough this week potentially in line for demotion.

Uncertain Future

Johnson’s premiership remains highly uncertain. There is now no doubt about the scale of unhappiness among Conservative MPs; the only questions that remain are about the next moment to strike. He is nominally safe from another no-confidence vote for 12 months, but that could be shortened with a straightforward rule change.

Boris Johnson Clings to Power, But Question Is for How Long

Imminent dangers include two key by-elections (special elections for individual seats) on June 23. The Tories are expected to lose both — one to Labour in Wakefield, in northern England’s so-called “red wall”, and the other to the Liberal Democrats in normally safe Tiverton and Honiton, in the south-west. A House of Commons committee is also investigating whether Johnson deliberately misled Parliament over partygate, and looks set to report in October.

What’s unclear is the potential impact of further setbacks. Johnson has already lasted longer in office than many critics thought he would, refusing to resign after becoming the first prime minister found to have broken the law while in office.

Some Tory MPs were buoyed by Johnson’s performance at Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions, his first test since the confidence vote, with many privately gleeful at what they saw as a lackluster performance by Starmer. One Johnson ally said a number of Tory MPs, including some rebels, were impressed with how he performed.

Whatever the motivations of the rebels, the latest chapter in Boris Johnson’s dramatic political career ended this week with the prime minister hemmed in by his foes but poised to fight another day, looking over his shoulder for the next looming threat.

With no obvious successor emerging from either his cabinet or restive Conservative backbenches, even a wounded Johnson could limp on for some time yet.

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