LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson tried to lift himself off the mat on Tuesday after a stinging rebuke by his Conservative Party. But with a fresh electoral challenge looming and Britain’s economy in a downward spiral, there are few easy ways for Mr. Johnson to reverse his fading fortunes.
Mr. Johnson’s too-close-for-comfort victory in a no-confidence vote on Monday evening left him badly damaged, with plenty of openings for would-be coup plotters. A pair of Parliamentary elections on June 23 could trigger another move against him if, as expected, the Conservatives lose at least one of the seats.
Even if Mr. Johnson clings to power, he faces a hard slog, with surging food and fuel prices, and predictions that Britain could slip into a recession. With more than 40 percent of his lawmakers having turned on him, pushing contentious legislation through the Parliament will be no easy feat.
Ever the happy warrior, an upbeat Mr. Johnson told cabinet ministers on Tuesday that it was time to put internal divisions over him aside and “get on with talking about the issues I think the people in this country want to talk about.”
It was a characteristically brash response from a politician whose entire career has been a thumb in eye of the oddsmakers. And he was in a comparatively safe space, speaking to a cabinet unlikely to rebel against him. But the mutiny in Mr. Johnson’s party, less than three years after he had led it to a landslide election victory, suggested he was not completely immune to the laws of political gravity.
A parade of scandals, most egregiously the lockdown-breaking parties at Downing Street during the pandemic, has left many Conservatives exhausted, disenchanted and fearful of latching their futures to an increasingly unpopular figure.
Unlike former President Donald J. Trump, to whom he is often compared, Mr. Johnson no longer has a mystical hold over his party. Many Tories openly label their leader a liability. Some call into question the populist tactics that made him successful in past elections.
They worry, for example, that the Conservatives no longer have a message that appeals to both their traditional voters in the prosperous south of England and the working-class, former Labour Party voters in the industrial north — known colloquially as the “red wall” — whom Mr. Johnson famously converted to Tory ranks in the 2019 general election with his promise to “get Brexit done.”
“There is a big schism between being the party of voters in the ‘red wall,’ who want a big state, and the party of affluent households in the south, who want a smaller state,” said Tony Travers, a professor of politics at the London School of Economics. “There are no policies that can square this circle.”
So far, Mr. Johnson’s government has adopted a mix of higher taxes and state aid for families suffering from the cost-of-living squeeze, through a windfall tax on energy companies, an idea stolen from the opposition Labour Party. These policies have alarmed low-tax, pro-business Tories but have yet to improve the party’s poll ratings, which trail those of Labour.
The scale of the electoral task faced by Mr. Johnson should become clearer in two weeks when voters go to the polls in two districts to replace Conservative lawmakers who resigned from Parliament in disgrace.
In Wakefield, a “red wall” district in the north of England that the Conservatives won in 2019, the omens are poor. The party’s former lawmaker, Imran Ahmad Khan, quit after being convicted of sexually assaulting a teenager. A Labour victory would be a sign both that it is starting to win back its heartlands under its leader, Keir Starmer, and that Mr. Johnson’s talismanic appeal has waned.
On the same day, the Conservatives will be defending a normally rock-solid seat in one of their traditional strongholds, Tiverton and Honiton, in the southwest of England, where the lawmaker, Neil Parish, quit after admitting to having watched pornography on his cellphone while in Parliament.
Here, the smaller, centrist Liberal Democratic Party is the prime challenger. If it performs well, that will send shock waves through the Conservative ranks, signaling to many of its lawmakers in the south that even in areas once considered safe, seats could be lost when the next general election comes.
Mr. Johnson also faces acute difficulties in Scotland, where he has never been popular and has now been disowned by four of the six Scottish Conservative members of the Westminster Parliament — including their leader, Douglas Ross — who voted against the prime minister on Monday.
One of the arguments that sustains Mr. Johnson is that no rival Conservative leader can appeal to such a cross-section of voters. But how Tories would campaign for the re-election of a prime minister they have declared unfit for office is an open question. And further evidence that he has become a vote loser would be damaging.
Among the post-mortems on Monday, the most unforgiving may have come from William Hague, a former Conservative leader who has been relatively restrained in his criticism of Mr. Johnson. He bluntly told the prime minister to resign.
“Votes have been cast that show a greater level of rejection than any Tory leader has ever endured and survived,” Mr. Hague wrote in The Times of London. “Deep inside, he should recognize that, and turn his mind to getting out in a way that spares party and country such agonies and uncertainties.”
Nothing in Mr. Johnson’s manner suggests that he plans to do that. Later this week, he is expected to make a series of policy announcements that are calculated to turn the page on the recent upheaval and attempt to reset his government. There is, inevitably, talk of another cabinet reshuffle.
The government is also likely to roll out legislation to overhaul the post-Brexit trade rules that govern Northern Ireland, hoping to cut back border checks on goods shipped from mainland Britain to the North.
That would please hard-core Brexiteers in the party, some of whom voted against Mr. Johnson on Monday. But other Tories argue that it would be a breach of international law. And it would antagonize the European Union at a time when Britain can ill afford further turmoil.
Mr. Johnson faces more turmoil of his own: A Parliamentary committee is looking into whether he misled lawmakers about the scandal over Downing Street parties, while the government’s handling of the pandemic will be the subject of a public inquiry.
Given the odds that Mr. Johnson’s political position will deteriorate even further in coming months, some rebels in his Conservative Party might wonder whether they acted prematurely in forcing a vote now rather than waiting.
That reflects the inchoate nature of this rebellion, according to analysts. It was less a carefully orchestrated coup attempt than an organic movement of fed-up Tory lawmakers. That same lack of coordination could handicap future efforts to dislodge Mr. Johnson, whose position, some argue, is firmer than it looks.
A cabinet rebellion of the type that ousted Margaret Thatcher in 1990 after she survived a leadership challenge seems unlikely, given that his team is stocked with pro-Brexit loyalists. Only Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the Exchequer, might be tempted to quit if Mr. Johnson demotes him in a reshuffle.
“Many of these people would never get a job in a successor government,” Mr. Travers said, “so they’ll cling to Boris Johnson like a lifeboat.”
The easiest way to remove Mr. Johnson would be for the 1922 Committee, which represents Conservative backbenchers, to amend a rule that prevents another no-confidence vote for 12 months. But were senior party figures to try this, Mr. Johnson might threaten to call a snap general election, preferring his chances of winning a contest among voters to one among his querulous lawmakers.
Some analysts said there was a path for Mr. Johnson, albeit a narrow one, which would necessitate cutting taxes, overhauling the public sector and helping “red wall” voters cope with the cost-of-living crisis. In such a scenario, the party would have to tolerate the loss of some of its traditional seats in the south.
It would also require Mr. Johnson to draw once more on his penchant for confounding the skeptics, not by jumping opportunistically from one issue to another but by putting his head down and soldiering on. The goal would be to survive the fallout from the looming district elections and make it to his party conference in the fall, and then beyond.
“If Johnson can get to the end of the year, he can get to the general election,” said Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent. “It’s not going to be easy at all, but you will either see a very ugly forced exit, or we all underestimated him — again — and he carries on.”