For Boris Johnson, Monday evening’s win was “decisive”, and his allies were out immediately, briefing that it would “draw a line” under the chaos of the past few months. But faced with the raw numbers – 211 votes to 148 – even his former employer the Daily Telegraph called it a “hollow victory”.
It was less convincing than the 63% to 37% victory of Theresa May over her detractors in 2018 – and even at the time that wasn’t really judged to be a resounding win.
Johnson claimed he had received the backing of more of his parliamentary colleagues than he got in the 2019 leadership race, but that is hardly comparing like with like.
Back then (it seems a political age ago) he got 51% of the vote, but MPs only get to narrow the field down to two candidates, before Conservative grassroots members get their turn to pick. In the final round of voting in the House of Commons, he was pitched against two other candidates: Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove.
On Monday, assuming Johnson received the backing of almost all the 140 or so MPs on the payroll – although that is by no means guaranteed – the result suggested about two-thirds of Tory backbenchers no longer support Johnson’s leadership.
That will mean the whips’ task of keeping the party in line, already made difficult by a series of U-turns, from Owen Paterson to the windfall tax, is even harder. And it may embolden some of the rebels to work more openly together.
Johnson’s problematic relationship with the Scottish Conservative party has been brutally exposed, too, with four of its six Tory MPs openly declaring no confidence in him. One of them, John Lamont, resigned as a parliamentary private secretary in order to do so.
For Douglas Ross, the Conservatives’ Scottish leader, the decision to go public with the fact that he was voting against Johnson marked a second U-turn: back in March, he said he was withdrawing his letter of no confidence while the Ukraine war was continuing.
The party’s chief whip in Holyrood, Stephen Kerr, told Good Morning Scotland that “undoubtedly [Johnson] is damaged”, adding: “I don’t know how long the prime minister can continue.”
There were other troubling numbers for the prime minister, too: Conservative Home’s panel of Tory members suggested 55% wanted MPs to remove him.
Like Jeremy Corbyn before him, Johnson has never had a close relationship with his parliamentary party, drawing his support instead from a direct relationship with devoted Tory members, and beyond them, the electorate.
Corbyn lost a vote of no confidence convincingly and sailed on, survived mass resignations from his frontbench and a leadership challenge, with the staunch support of party members.
But the ConHome poll, which lines up with anecdotes from Conservative MPs, suggests the party loyalists in Tory associations up and down the country who once constituted Johnson’s fanbase, flocking to his speeches at conference, are running out of patience.
The other number Johnson’s team will be watching, aside from the results in two critical byelections in a fortnight’s time, will be the Conservatives’ standing in the polls.
Labour has been running eight to 10 percentage points ahead of Johnson’s party for months now; if Keir Starmer starts to pull away and establish a more decisive lead, it could cement Johnson’s status as an electoral liability.
It is unclear what might be a trigger for the 1922 Committee executive to change the rules in order to give MPs another shot at a no-confidence vote within the year – but perhaps a nerve-shredding collapse in the polls would qualify.
And another way of looking at his “decisive” victory on Monday night, is that it would take just 32 MPs to lose confidence in the prime minister and switch sides in a future vote, to turf him out.