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Boris Johnson survives no confidence vote

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Britain's prime minister, Boris Johnson, survived a no-confidence vote brought by his own party. The vote was 211-148, short of the majority needed to oust him as leader of the Conservatives. But it was enough to show how weakened Johnson is politically, following revelations about raucous parties at 10 Downing Street during COVID lockdowns. Joining us now from outside London is reporter Willem Marx. Hi, Willem.

WILLEM MARX: Hey, Leila.

FADEL: Now, Boris Johnson claimed victory after the vote. He said it was time for the country to move on to more important matters. But was that bluster? Is Johnson really out of the woods here?

MARX: No, not by any means. The vote was far closer than expected. And until yesterday, only a few dozen legislators had publicly voiced criticism of the prime minister ahead of that vote. And yet after the vote itself took place, in private, the results of the secret ballot showed more than 40% of the Conservative legislators in Parliament had voted against Johnson's continued leadership.

FADEL: Wow.

MARX: Three previous Conservative prime ministers - they've fared better than that in comparable votes. None of them stayed in power for all that much time afterwards. And while the current internal rules of the Conservative Party prevent another similar challenge to Johnson's leadership over the next 12 months, those rules could potentially be changed, or else the pressure from such a rebellious rump of his own parliamentary party may make the process of actually governing increasingly difficult for the prime minister, particularly if he can't command a clear parliamentary majority for new legislation.

FADEL: Yeah, will make it more difficult. Remind us why so many people, including members of his own party, have turned on him. What exactly went on at the prime minister's residence that was so damaging?

MARX: Well, for many months there's been a pretty steady drip of revelations and reporting about that behavior inside Downing Street during the pandemic - drinks gatherings, garden parties, even a karaoke machine - ignoring the kind of social restrictions that blanketed Britain for such long periods of time. And some senior advisers resigned over these reports. Johnson denied them initially. He subsequently admitted there may have been rule-breaking but insisted he was unaware of it. And then after a police and civil service inquiry left him to pay a penalty fine for his own attendance at one such event, he still really refused to offer a heartfelt apology, let alone his resignation, as many demanded.

And so British public opinion turned sharply against him, less than three years after winning a convincing general election victory. And now, with a parliamentary ethics committee set to spend months examining whether he lied about what's become known here as partygate, Conservative legislators are bracing for many more critical headlines.

FADEL: So he's been in hot water before, but he's shown this uncanny knack for survival. If he is pushed out in the future, do we have any idea who might replace him, or is that part of the problem here?

MARX: Well, yeah, as even some of his staunchest critics will acknowledge, Johnson's shown a real talent for political comebacks, unexpected surprises - twice winning the London mayoral election, along with top government jobs, a leadership contest and then that 2019 general election. And what makes it so difficult for the Conservatives in selecting a replacement is that he so resoundingly defeated many of the party's leading lights in the contest that made him prime minister. And thanks to his, let's call it, high-profile celebrity status, he's that rare politician who appeals to people who might not typically vote Conservative because either they liked his unique personality or found him entertaining.

One potential challenger is the former health and foreign secretary, a man called Jeremy Hunt, who's got a relatively high profile, domestically and overseas. But for him or anyone else, one major obstacle would be creating a mechanism to get Johnson out of Downing Street, kicking and screaming, as several reports have suggested. And the next hurdle would be uniting a party that seems so torn by internal conflict, Leila.

FADEL: Reporter Willem Marx, thank you so much for your reporting.

MARX: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.