Boris Johnson, With Ouster Attempt Behind Him, Tries to Refocus on Troubled U.K. Economy

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LONDON—British Prime Minister

Boris Johnson

on Tuesday pledged to refocus his government on tackling voters’ priorities, trying to rally his party behind him following an effort by his fellow Conservative lawmakers to oust him.

On Monday evening, 41% of Conservative lawmakers voted to topple Mr. Johnson in a leadership challenge. The effort failed, but it was a surprisingly large rebellion against a leader who until six months ago was feted as one of the Conservative Party’s most effective political communicators.

Approval ratings for the British leader have tanked amid a cost-of-living crisis and his attendance at several parties in Downing Street during Covid-19 lockdowns.

On Tuesday, Mr. Johnson rallied his ministers, saying that it was time to focus on policy now that the abortive revolt was over. “We’re able to get on with talking about what I think the people in this country want us to,” Mr. Johnson told his colleagues, who were gathered round the cabinet table in Downing Street during televised remarks.

To underscore this point, Mr. Johnson plans a packed agenda, of which details haven’t been disclosed. This week he will address the issue of housing affordability during a keynote speech. Next week, Mr. Johnson will set out his plans for shoring up Britain’s inflation-stricken economy before burnishing his credentials as a global leader later this month at meetings of the Group of Seven leading economies and North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The government also plans to send a first batch of asylum seekers from various countries to Rwanda, part of a controversial strategy to disencentivize illegal immigration, a priority for many British voters.

On paper, Mr. Johnson’s hand looks strong. He presides over an 80-seat majority in Parliament, and under Conservative Party rules there can’t be another leadership challenge for a year. The next general election doesn’t have to be held until early 2025.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson survived a no-confidence vote on Monday by 211 to 148. He said the result would allow the government to “move on” and “unite.” Rebels in the Conservative Party expressed concerns over the economy and his involvement in the “partygate” scandal. Photo: PA Wire/Zuma Press

Furthermore, the Conservative Party lacks high-profile replacements for Mr. Johnson, analysts say. No other Tory has his name recognition or electoral record.

However, some Conservative Party members see Mr. Johnson’s brand as tainted by successive scandals, combined with tax increases and policies intended to protect the environment that have alienated many traditional Conservatives. Mr. Johnson’s biggest issue is that the backlash has now become personal, said

Tim Bale,

professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “It is not simply a policy problem, it is a personality problem,” he said. “Johnson is the problem.”

A survey this week of normally loyal Conservative grass roots members by the website Conservative Home found that 55% thought lawmakers should remove Mr. Johnson. A poll by

YouGov

on Monday found that six in 10 voters think that the government doesn’t have the right ideas to fix the cost-of-living crisis. The Conservative Party trails the opposition Labour Party in the polls.

In Parliament, Conservative lawmakers are struggling to reconcile that their party, which has long traded on a reputation for law and order, has a leader who was fined for breaking the law by attending his own birthday party during a lockdown.

Mr. Johnson has apologized for the Downing Street parties and said he thought attending such events was a part of his responsibility to motivate staff. He has spent the past few days urging disgruntled lawmakers to move on from the “partygate” scandal. On Monday,

James Cleverly,

a Conservative lawmaker loyal to the prime minister, said that Mr. Johnson was in “serious mode” and refocusing his operation.

“The prime minister’s opponents have to accept that he won, and his supporters and the prime minister himself have got to accept that a change of policy is needed,” said

David Frost,

a member of the House of Lords who used to advise Mr. Johnson. “If he can change that, then he can get onto a different path and save the premiership.”

Later this month, his party will face two elections in districts that will, pollsters say, lay bare his struggle to appeal to both blue-collar voters and traditional Tory voters. On June 23, elections for seats in Parliament will be held in Wakefield, a northern district which Mr. Johnson converted from Labour in 2019, and Tiverton and Honiton, a traditionally Conservative district in south west England. A big loss in these seats would further feed the narrative that Mr. Johnson is no longer able to hold together the Tory’s diverse voter base.

Meanwhile, a parliamentary committee is looking at whether Mr. Johnson deliberately lied to Parliament by denying that Covid-19 rules were broken in Downing Street. Deliberately misleading Parliament is traditionally a resigning matter. The conclusions of that probe are expected in the fall, before the Conservatives’ annual meeting.

The economy will continue to dominate, with the Bank of England expecting inflation to top 10% by year-end. Fuel prices are rising, and policy makers say there is little they can do to mitigate them, given that prices are  a global supply chain issue.

If the polls get worse, then the Conservative 1922 Committee, which handles leadership matters in the party, could change its bylaws and allow a fresh confidence vote before the year is out. Conservative officials in the past have resisted doing this.

Write to Max Colchester at [email protected]

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