Will British Prime Minister Boris Johnson be ousted amid COVID-19 party controversy?

Johnson has been increasingly under fire for his actions during the pandemic.

January 25, 2022, 6:14 AM

The British prime minister's political future is in the balance.

"If Boris Johnson is still PM by the end of the week, I'd be very surprised," an unnamed source told the Telegraph.

Boris Johnson has been increasingly under fire for his actions during the COVID-19 pandemic. A string of news reports have claimed that numerous parties were held at Downing Street in 2020 and 2021, while the rest of the country was under strict lockdown and social contact was extremely limited.

The latest revelation that Downing Street staffers held a birthday party for Johnson last June has led to Dame Cressida Dick, head of London’s Metropolitan police, confirming her force will be investigating whether lockdown rules were broken in Downing Street.

"As a result of the information provided by the Cabinet office and my officers own assessment,” Dick told politicians at the London Assembly, “I can confirm the Met is now investigating a number of events that took place at Downing St and Whitehall in the last two years in relation to breaches of COVID-19 regulations."

Johnson has been fighting to save his position since these reports first started to emerge. As news of discos in the basement and wine bottles being brought in by the suitcase filled the front pages public anger grew. The resentment toward Johnson and his staff reached fever pitch with the report that staff had been partying the night before Prince Philip's funeral -- a particularly painful juxtaposition with the images of Queen Elizabeth seated alone, abiding by the COVID-19 regulations as she said goodbye to her husband.

Downing Street sent a formal apology to the Queen, with Johnson telling journalists: "I deeply and bitterly regret that that happened. I can only renew my apologies both to Her Majesty and to the country for misjudgments that were made, and for which I take full responsibility."

Johnson has maintained that he never knowingly breached any COVID-19 regulations, admitting that he attended what he described as "a work event" in the Downing Street garden last May. He told parliament, "When I went into that garden just after 6 on 20 May 2020, to thank groups of staff before going back into my office 25 minutes later to continue working, I believed implicitly that this was a work event."

He has commissioned a report into these various gatherings to determine whether any rules were indeed broken. The senior civil servant in charge of this report, Sue Gray, was expected to release her findings this week but this report will now be delayed while the police investigate.

Many of his own members of parliament have said they are withholding judgement on his leadership until this report is published.

PHOTO: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson waves as he leaves Downing Street in London, Jan. 19, 2022.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson waves as he leaves Downing Street in London, Jan. 19, 2022.
John Sibley/Reuters, FILE

What could happen next?

There are four possible scenarios:

1. The report finds that Johnson deliberately misled parliament and therefore breached ministerial code. He will then have to resign.

2. The report doesn't prove Johnson lied to parliament but is so damning his reputation is destroyed and he feels compelled to resign.

3. His fellow members of parliament decide they no longer have confidence in him and trigger a no confidence vote.

4. The report exonerates Johnson, the mutinous air within his party subsides and he continues as prime minister.

What happens if he resigns?

According to its (unwritten) constitution, the UK cannot be without a prime minister, so Johnson could continue to serve while a leadership contest is played out. A less likely scenario is that a member of his cabinet will become prime minister until a new leader is chosen.

How can the Conservatives trigger a no confidence vote?

Fifteen percent of Conservative members of parliament -- which amounts to 54 of the 359 currently serving -- need to write to the chairman of the 1922 Committee (an influential group of backbench members), saying they no longer have confidence in the prime minister's leadership.

The current chairman of the 1922 Committee is Sir Graham Brady. We know some letters have been sent but this process is clouded in secrecy with Brady famously telling the BBC during the last leadership contest that not even his wife knew how many letters were coming in.

Once 54 letters have been received, Brady will initiate a no confidence vote.

What is the process for a no confidence vote?

If Johnson wins more than 50% of his members of parliament's votes, then he stays on as prime minister and there cannot be another no confidence vote until 12 months later.

But if he does not reach that threshold, then he is out and cannot contest it.

How does a leadership contest pan out?

If Johnson has resigned or loses the no confidence vote, then the Conservative Party leadership contest will begin, and there will be a series of votes to determine who will be the next leader and prime minister.

Any Tory member of parliament can stand, providing they have enough support from their colleagues. There are a series of rounds to whittle down candidates; if candidates don't meet a certain threshold in each round, then they are eliminated. This shortlisting process continues until only two candidates remain.

What is the timeframe for a leadership contest?

These first elimination rounds can take a few weeks. For the last leadership contest in 2019, it was two weeks.

Once the two final candidates have been selected, all Conservative Party members are then called to vote on which one of the two will be their next leader. Whoever wins the majority in this ballot becomes the next Conservative Party leader and prime minister.

The 1922 Committee determines the time frame for each step.

Who are the likely contenders?

Likely contenders include Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, Cabinet Minister Michael Gove, Health Secretary Sajid Javid and former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

What happened last time?

In 2019, Theresa May resigned, prompting a Conservative Party leadership contest. Johnson won, securing 66% of the votes, while his rival, Jeremy Hunt, took the remaining 34%. The candidates, besides Hunt, that stood against Johnson, were Michael Gove, Sajid Javid, Rory Stewart, Esther McVey and Andrea Leadsom. Three others -- James Cleverly, Sam Gyimah and Kit Malthouse -- dipped their toes in but never formally ran.

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