It would be nice to argue that the near-complete accuracy of my prediction of the outcome of the Conservative Party’s no-confidence motion against Boris Johnson was a glorious triumph of devoted political science: I predicted that 211 MPs would vote for him and 147 against (the actual number was 148 – I assumed an MP might not vote).
But alas, that would be too demanding. My prediction involved a lot of guesswork and quite a bit of premonition, combining what The Guardian newspaper called “Mystic Meg” crystals after the crystal ball with mathematical modelling.
As far as serious calculations were concerned, it involved adding up the number of pledges made by Conservative MPs for or against the prime minister and comparing those results with Theresa May’s position when she got a similar vote in December 2018. their intentions, but the basic picture could be traced through those who did.
Judging by the loyal or hostile protests, it was clear that Johnson would do worse than his predecessor May. May had significantly more public statements of support from her MPs and fewer statements of opposition. So the first assumption was that Johnson would not reach her 63% support total. The next question was, how low could he go?
It seemed safe to assume that the MPs who pledged rebellion would stick to their word. After all, that’s their higher risk personal option. If Johnson won big, they risked permanent backseat banishment, thwarting the vaulted ambition of some. Public affirmations of opposition were to be regarded as the bare minimum scale of insurrection, to which additions were required.
From early Monday, it was clear that momentum was with Johnson’s opponents. As more and more people turned against him, there was a little snowball effect, increasing the confidence of other would-be rebels to join the fun.
Voting time made rebellion seem like a lower-risk move — and perhaps even the wiser calculation. If Johnson’s premiership were irreparably damaged, those MPs who remain loyal – or sit on the fence – could fall victim to a purge by a new leader.
Newcomers and the payroll vote
Nevertheless, amid the tumult, the prime minister was able to count on considerable support. In the privacy of the polls, there’s no guarantee that the whole “salary vote” – with every member of the House of Commons government, from minister to parliamentary private secretary, will all remain loyal. There are some whose current level of preference does not meet their own significant perception of their abilities. They like to turn against their leader.
But there are plenty of the prime minister’s wage-earners, grateful to be paid at their posts. Ridiculously, the vote on the payroll, with between 160 and 170 MPs, makes up almost half of the parliamentary party. That in itself was almost enough to win Johnson over.
To the bulk of the vote on the payroll could be added the most MPs from the class of 2019 – those 58 Conservatives who won seats from other parties in the general election, many in Labour’s legendary one-time “red wall”. A significant number feel indebted to Johnson for what they – and many others – might see as their unlikely victories.
In my own piece of North West England they make up a third of the entire Conservative representation. Significantly, no one came out publicly against their leader. There were exceptions elsewhere – such as the MP for Bishop Auckland, Dehenna Davison – but most remained loyal.
By adding the payroll vote and the “newbie” vote and then making some deductions, you get the very broad outline of the vote prediction. But the silence of some MPs in neither category made precision difficult. And that’s where there were a lot of predictions, relying on luck and guesses to get to a 59% to 41% prediction.
Johnson would always have more than a majority, so the predictive range was about 55% to slightly below Theresa May’s 63% figure. A 59% halfway house seemed reasonable based on the analysis of the game.
Now what about ‘Big Dog’?
Even harder to predict is what will happen now to Johnson’s premiership. It is almost unthinkable to think of another Conservative leader going on while more than four in ten MPs have called for his head from their own side.
But you have to consider Johnson’s suspension of what many consider the normal rules of politics. And at least one of his allies insisted that he remain defiant even if he only won by one vote.
So it may be unwise to overemphasize the precedents of Margaret Thatcher, John Major and May leaving their own side immediately or shortly after a bruise. Each departure was in different circumstances anyway.
Read more: Boris Johnson: What the confidence vote result means for the Prime Minister and the Conservative Party
At the moment, the Conservatives certainly look set to lose the two impending by-elections in Wakefield in Yorkshire and Tiverton and Honiton in Devon on 23 June. In both cases, the conservative candidates follow their main opponents poorly. But after those major setbacks, Johnson hopes to hold out until the parliamentary summer recess that begins July 22.
But his summer vacation will hardly be stress-free. Not long after Johnson cracks some jokes at the Conservatives’ annual conference in Birmingham in October, he will be faced with a potentially very difficult report from the Parliamentary Privileges Committee on whether he misled parliament over ‘party gate’.
Only if the prime minister survives unharmed can he set his own agenda again.