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UK's Boris Johnson faces a no-confidence vote

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The U.K. prime minister, Boris Johnson, faces a no-confidence vote tonight. This move by Johnson's critics could cost him his job. In the U.K. system, the prime minister's party controls the House of Commons. And if a majority of his conservative party rejects him, he must step aside. NPR's Frank Langfitt says at least some members want him out.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: It goes back to a lot of anger about the way Johnson and his staff behaved during the COVID lockdown. You know, as we've reported, he attended some lockdown parties - his staff - many parties, when people here weren't allowed to even go out and see dying loved ones in the hospital. Now, a report came out late last month, Steve - found a drunken culture at No. 10 Downing Street. They describe parties in which one person was vomiting. There was red wine splashed on the walls, abuse of cleaning staff. Johnson himself ended up being fined $62 for breaking one of his own laws, effectively - first time a prime minister has been found to have broken a law in office.

And on Friday, I'll tell you - I've been covering the Queen's Jubilee celebration, you know, over the last few days. And Johnson came to St. Paul's Cathedral for this big service, where the royal family also came, and he was roundly booed by the crowd. The biggest concern, I think, inside his Conservative Party, Steve, is very political, as you'd imagine. Some see Johnson now as damaged goods and think he may not be able to lead them into the next election, which should come around 2024.

INSKEEP: OK, so this is entirely up to his party. He's effectively a creature of his party here - has to keep a majority of them on his side. What are the mechanics of the process?

LANGFITT: Well, the way we got here is there have to be 54 letters from lawmakers saying they don't have confidence, and they want a vote. And they just reached that, I guess, over the weekend. But that's only 15% of his party in the House of Commons. It's not at all a mandate. And what they'll need is a hundred and eighty conservative lawmakers at least, out of 359, to vote him out effectively this evening. Now, if the rebels fail - the Tory rebels fail, under the current rules, they cannot challenge him again for another 12 months. So there - it is a bit of a high-risk proposition.

INSKEEP: Is there any sense of whether the rebels have the votes?

LANGFITT: You know, I'm not sure. They've only had 54 right now in terms of these letters. The other thing, Steve, is they don't have an alternative candidate, which means that even if they were to reach this threshold, you're looking at a one- to two-month leadership fight when the party's already pretty weak. What Johnson's team this morning is saying to everybody in the party is, you know, slow down. We don't need a civil war. That's only going to help our opposition - you know, the Labour Party - and says the country needs to focus on the war in Ukraine. Of course, the U.K. has been a leader in arming the Ukrainian army. And party says, you know, we need to focus on the rising cost of living at home.

INSKEEP: Does this damage Boris Johnson, even if he survives?

LANGFITT: Yeah, it does. It absolutely does. And a big question here, I think, among people even in his own party is - it's not a question of maybe if Johnson goes, but when he would go. And the big picture, I think, Steve - and we've reported on this for a long time - Johnson is a very entertaining cheerleader for the country at his best. He's also sort of had a reputation as a bit of a naughty school boy over the years who kind of breaks the rules in what's effectively a rule-following country. That does have some appeal. But COVID was different, I think, Steve. You know, the stakes there were life and death. Many people here really did sacrifice, including the Queen, who sat alone at her husband's funeral with a mask on. And so, you know, Johnson, all along, has been kind of this Teflon politician, but his handling of COVID may finally stick.

INSKEEP: NPR's Frank Langfitt in London, thanks for your insights.

LANGFITT: Good to talk, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.