On Monday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson survived a confidence vote from his own members of parliament by 211 votes to 148. This means the potential constitutional crises that would have been caused had he then refused to resign have been averted. But the size of the vote against him indicates serious problems ahead.
One problem is that Johnson still faces a report from the important House of Commons privileges committee that is investigating whether he misled parliament about the extent and scope of the unlawful parties at his official residence during the pandemic lockdown imposed on the rest of the country.
Johnson has already received a penalty from the police, and there has been a scathing report from senior civil servant Sue Gray, but the matter is still not concluded. The privileges committee can even recommend sanctions, such as his suspension from the House of Commons. Monday’s vote shows that he may not have the support to contest an unwelcome finding of fact and sanctions decision.
Another problem is that the vote shows how little support he can safely rely on for this government’s programme. There are 650 seats in the House of Commons, and the implication of Monday’s vote is that only 211 members of parliament have confidence in him as prime minister. This indicates that the more contentious and extreme proposals of the government may face more difficulty in getting majority support. He can no longer take majorities for granted. This is a remarkable predicament for a politician who, in December 2019, won a substantial overall majority of 80 seats.
We are now about halfway through this parliamentary term. A new general election does not need to take place for another couple of years. Because of the repeal of legislation that fixed term lengths for parliaments, the next general election will take place at a moment of the prime minister’s choosing, as long as the election is called before the end of 2024.
Many things can change before the next general election, and a politician as wily and opportunistic as Johnson should not be underestimated. He has spent his career getting out of situations that wiser people would not have got into. But the structural problems facing Johnson’s premiership are now formidable.
There is no quick and easy solution to the problems presented by the Northern Irish Protocol. There are no articulated visions for the post-Brexit relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union. Support for the government has collapsed in Scotland and Wales; in England, the government is expected to lose heavily in constituencies in two different parts of the country to two different opposition parties. All this, in addition to a cost-of-living crunch and haphazard – almost randomly generated – tax-and-spend policies.
A constitutional crisis was averted on Monday – but politically – as distinct from constitutionally – the result was the worst possible for the current prime minister. The vote means there will be weak political leadership during a time of substantial challenges. Johnson may carry on being prime minister, but it is difficult to see his government doing anything other than having things happen to it – responding to events rather than shaping them.
The uncodified, “unwritten”, constitution of the UK makes it possible for prime ministers to be replaced mid-term. Every single prime minister since 1974 has either come to power or left office, or both, between general elections. It is now a waiting game: How will the weak and directionless Johnson premiership come to an end, or will it linger on for want of an alternative until the next general election?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.