Boris Johnson Is Hanging by a Thread
LONDON — Boris Johnson, Britain’s classics-loving prime minister, has long been fascinated by the fall of the Roman Empire. Now his government risks a fall of its own.
The decline in his fortunes has been swift and dramatic. For weeks, the news media heaved with accounts of lockdown breaches: There was a garden party, a birthday party, a staff goodbye party — Mr. Johnson at all of them. His approval ratings plummeted and apoplectic Conservative legislators threatened to oust him. Then the police got involved, opening an inquiry into whether the prime minister broke the laws he created.
On Monday, the challenge facing Mr. Johnson was laid bare. An inquiry led by Sue Gray, a senior civil servant with a reputation for hard-nosed investigations, found “failures of leadership and judgment” lay behind the gatherings, a number of which “should not have been allowed to take place.” The police, she said, was investigating 12 of them.
“I will fix it,” a defiant Mr. Johnson told Parliament. But he was met with ringing jeers and calls to resign. His position is precarious: If 54 Conservative lawmakers send party officials “letters of no-confidence,” explicitly challenging Mr. Johnson’s leadership, it will automatically set off a secret ballot. The prime minister’s fate would then rest in the hands of his colleagues.
Whether Mr. Johnson is removed or granted a reprieve, the past few weeks amount to a remarkable fall from grace. A little over two years ago, he led the Conservative Party to a resounding electoral victory and sat atop an 80-seat majority. There was talk of a decade in power. Now, with his authority severely wounded, his tenure is hanging by a thread.
Behind the machinations at Westminster, crucially, is overwhelming public anger. The national mood is furious, disdainful: Nearly two-thirds of the country want Mr. Johnson to resign. Long inured to Mr. Johnson’s scandals, Britons seem to have drawn the line at partying through the worst of the pandemic.
The details are damning enough. The organizer of one of the gatherings, an aide to Mr. Johnson, emailed 100 officials inviting them to “bring your own bottle” and “make the most of the lovely weather” in the garden at 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s official residence. That was on May 20, 2020. Britain was two months into a punishing national lockdown, and people were allowed only to see family and friends one-on-one in public parks.
At another of the gatherings, nearly a year later, an official was sent off to fill a suitcase with bottles of wine as others set up an impromptu D.J. booth in the Downing Street basement. By then, April 16, 2021, Britain had registered more than 150,000 coronavirus deaths. The next day, Queen Elizabeth followed the rules and sat alone at the funeral for her husband, Prince Philip.
As more and more lurid details have emerged, the Conservative Party has steadily fallen in the polls, and Mr. Johnson’s approval rating has sunk to 22 percent. For someone once known as the Heineken Tory — the political equivalent of the inoffensive Dutch beer that appeals to wine and liquor drinkers alike — it’s a catastrophic development.
The loss of popular appeal is bad for any democratic leader. But for Mr. Johnson, whose success in securing the leadership of the Conservative Party depended on his electoral charm, it’s disastrous. The triumph of December 2019 feels like an age ago. Two years of chaotic government marked by tax increases, embarrassing policy reversals and political misjudgments have caused many Conservative legislators to doubt whether Mr. Johnson could lead them to victory in a future election. If he can’t, they reason, there’s no point in him staying in place.
Ominously, Mr. Johnson has bled support from all wings and generations of his party. A large chunk of those elected for the first time in 2019 — who owe their seats to Mr. Johnson — have spent this month openly plotting against him, with around 20 of these legislators thought to have sent in letters of no-confidence. And Conservative grandees with nothing to lose have piled on. Last week David Davis, a former cabinet minister, told Mr. Johnson, “In the name of God, go.”
Discontent has been brewing for a while. Legislators have long chafed at Mr. Johnson’s stubborn tendency to go it alone, his lack of interest in building party unity and the chaotic way in which his government is run. Major missteps — such as a resistance to providing poor pupils with free meals over the school holidays — alienated some of his supporters in Parliament. Many of them waited in vain to be offered promotions that ultimately went to the prime minister’s long-term allies. By the time the latest scandal broke, they had acquired a taste for treachery and rebellion.
Mr. Johnson has spent much of the past two weeks attempting to convince wavering legislators to stick by him. The Gray report, despite being stripped back to avoid prejudicing the policy inquiry, will put such support to the test. Even if Mr. Johnson manages to ride out the storm, his troubles are far from over. The investigation by the Metropolitan Police, which could involve the humiliation of the prime minister and his staff being interviewed as suspects, will be deeply damaging. And local elections in May will give the country’s voters a chance to display their anger.
Back in November, Mr. Johnson was musing aloud about the fall of Rome. “When things start to go wrong,” he said, “they can go wrong at extraordinary speed.” He had no idea how right he was.
Eleni Courea (@EleniCourea) is deputy editor of Politico’s London Playbook.
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