LONDON -- British Prime Minister Boris Johnson defied calls to resign in a feisty performance Wednesday in Parliament -- but it may be too little to prevent a push by his Conservative Party's lawmakers to oust him because of a series of lockdown-flouting government parties.
Pressure on the prime minister grew as one Conservative lawmaker defected to the opposition Labour Party and a former Conservative Cabinet Minister told him: “In the name of God, go!”
The demand from former Brexit Secretary David Davis came during a combative Prime Minister's Questions session in the House of Commons, where Johnson defended his government's record in running the economy, fighting crime and dealing with the novel coronavirus pandemic, and vowed to lead his party into the next election.
The allegations that Johnson and his staff broke restrictions the government imposed on the country have helped the Labour Party open up a double-digit opinion poll lead on the Conservatives, but Johnson doesn’t have to face voters until the next general election, scheduled for 2024.
His bigger danger is from his own party, which has a history of ousting leaders once they become liabilities.
Conservatives are weighing whether to trigger a no-confidence vote in Johnson amid the public anger about the scandal dubbed “partygate” -- a stunning reversal of fortune for a politician who just more than two years ago led the party to its biggest election victory in almost 40 years.
Under Conservative rules, a no-confidence vote in the party’s leader can be triggered if 54 party lawmakers -- 15% of the party’s House of Commons total -- write letters to a party official demanding it.
If Johnson lost a confidence vote among the party’s 359 lawmakers, it would trigger a contest to replace him as Conservative leader. The winner would also become prime minister. If Johnson won the vote, he would be safe from a similar challenge for a year.
Johnson on Wednesday announced he was lifting mask mandates and most other COVID-19 restrictions in England beginning next week, as he tried to change the subject and brush aside questions about the scandal.
“We delivered while they dithered,” he said of opposition politicians, several of whom told Johnson he was regarded by Britons as a charlatan, a hypocrite, a liar and “stupid.”
The Labour opposition was boosted by the defection to their ranks of Conservative lawmaker Christian Wakeford, who said the prime minister was "incapable of offering the leadership and government this country deserves.”
Johnson dismissed calls to quit, and said the Conservatives would regain Wakeford's seat in the next election. Johnson's press secretary said the prime minister intended to lead the party in that election.
But Johnson's defiant performance was met with muted cheers on the Conservative side of the House of Commons.
So far, only a handful of Conservative members of Parliament have openly called for Johnson to resign, though several dozen are believed to have submitted letters, including some elected as part of a Johnson-led landslide in December 2019.
Conservative lawmaker Andrew Bridgen, who is calling for a change, said he thought the 54-letter threshold would be reached this week, setting the stage for a confidence vote within days.
Senior civil servant Sue Gray is investigating claims that government staff held late-night soirees, boozy parties and “wine time Fridays” while Britain was under COVID-19 restrictions in 2020 and 2021. The allegations have spawned public anger, incredulity and mockery, and prompted growing calls for Johnson’s resignation.
Johnson apologized to lawmakers last week for attending a “bring your own booze” gathering in the garden of his Downing Street offices in May 2020. At the time, people in Britain were barred from meeting more than one person outside their household to help curb the spread of COVID-19.
Johnson said he had considered the party a work gathering that fell within the rules.
Johnson told lawmakers that Gray's report would be published next week, and urged his party to withhold judgment until then. He also held private meetings with Conservative lawmakers Wednesday to shore up his crumbling support.
Some Conservative legislators urged colleagues to show unity.
“Now is the time to get behind the prime minister," said Jake Berry, a Johnson ally.
Jonathan Gullis, elected in 2019 to represent the seat of Stoke on Trent North -- one of a swath of working-class Labour strongholds the party has won under Johnson's leadership -- urged colleagues who had submitted letters seeking a no-confidence vote to withdraw them.
Gullis said he was backing Johnson because “he has a unique ability to engage with voters, especially in places like Stoke on Trent.”
But Johnson’s apologies -- in which he acknowledged “misjudgments” but not personal rule-breaking -- appear to have weakened, rather than strengthened, his position in the party. Even lawmakers who back Johnson say he would have to resign if he is found to have lied.
Experts say there is a good chance the investigation will neither exonerate him nor conclude he broke the law.
Armed Forces Minister James Heappey said members of the public were “absolutely furious.”
“I am angry, too,” Heappey told Times Radio, but added “the prime minister has stood up at the dispatch box and set out his version of events and apologized profusely to the British public.”
“I choose to believe what the prime minister has said. But I know that that’s not good enough for many of my constituents,” he said.