Boris Johnson, Facing a Mutiny, Says England Will Ease Virus Rules

LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson, fighting for his political life, said on Wednesday that he would lift almost all remaining coronavirus restrictions in England, hoping to stanch a devastating loss of support over charges that he lied about parties in Downing Street during lockdowns.

Mr. Johnson’s announcement during a heated appearance in Parliament was a significant gamble by a besieged leader who is almost out of moves. It appeared to be an effort not just to change the subject but also to win over restive Conservative lawmakers, nearly 100 of whom rebelled against him when he imposed the measures last month.

But as the prime minister faced yet another chorus of calls to resign, and after news that one Conservative legislator had defected to the opposition Labour Party, the announcement did little to dispel the furor over the parties. The stream of disclosures about illicit social gatherings have engulfed Mr. Johnson’s government and emboldened mutinous lawmakers to push for a no-confidence vote that could topple him.

Whether the lawmakers reach the threshold of 54 letters necessary to prompt a vote is now the all-consuming question in Westminster. Even if Mr. Johnson were to survive — which would require winning a simple majority of Conservative lawmakers — it would most likely cripple his leadership.

In easing Covid restrictions a week before they were scheduled to expire, Mr. Johnson said that he was trying to restore England’s “ancient liberties,” a reference to the country’s deep-rooted tradition of individual freedoms.

It was one of several crowd-pleasing moves the government has made this week, as Mr. Johnson tried desperately to shore up support among the Conservative base. He presented it as evidence that Britain had put the worst of the Omicron wave behind it, with new cases and hospitalization rates beginning to decline, even though they are still at a high level.

Mr. Johnson said that the government would in the coming days drop its guidance on wearing face masks on public transportation and in school classrooms, encourage workers to return to their offices and end the requirement that people show vaccine certificates or proof of recovery from a recent coronavirus infection to enter large public events.

“We will trust the judgment of the English people,” Mr. Johnson said, taking credit for not imposing even stricter restrictions as Omicron infections surged. “We are the first to emerge from the Omicron wave.”

“The data are showing that time and again, this government got the toughest decisions right,” Mr. Johnson added, noting that other European countries had reimposed lockdown restrictions and all but canceled the Christmas holiday.

Before the announcement in Parliament on Wednesday, the government had looked to appeal to voters on immigration and cultural issues with a raft of policy ideas, such as using the Royal Navy to stem the tide of migrants crossing the English Channel and freezing the budget of the BBC.

Yet none of those hastily assembled gambits seemed to slow the momentum of Mr. Johnson’s political unraveling. On Wednesday, minutes before the prime minister appeared in Parliament, a Conservative lawmaker, Christian Wakeford, announced that he would join the Labour Party, delivering a stinging blow to Mr. Johnson.

Mr. Wakeford, who sat with Labour lawmakers, expressed anger at how the prime minister had handled the outcry over the parties and confirmed that he had submitted a letter calling for a no-confidence vote.

In a letter to Mr. Johnson, Mr. Wakeford said, “Both you and the Conservative Party as a whole have shown themselves incapable of providing the leadership and government this country deserves.”

Mr. Johnson’s earlier public appearances, including a television interview on Tuesday, not only failed to convince his internal critics but seemed to deepen the crisis. He showed more fight in Parliament on Wednesday, and again insisted he would not resign, but was still put on the defensive by the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, who mocked his shifting explanations about a party he attended in the Downing Street garden in May 2020.

Noting that Mr. Johnson had apologized to Queen Elizabeth II for parties held on the eve of the funeral of her husband, Prince Philip, Mr. Starmer asked, “Isn’t he ashamed he didn’t hand in his resignation at the same time?”

Mr. Johnson has struggled to sustain his argument that he did not mislead Parliament — an offense that could lead to a prime minister’s resignation — on the grounds that he thought he was attending a work event when, in May 2020, he joined several dozen staff members drinking in the garden at the height of lockdown restrictions.

With polls showing that only a small minority of people believe that Mr. Johnson is telling the truth about the Downing Street parties, and with lawmakers fearing an electoral backlash, the pressure for a no-confidence vote is mounting. Because the process is secret, it is unclear how many lawmakers have sent letters calling for such an action.

Understand Boris Johnson’s Recent Troubles

Card 1 of 5

Turmoil at Downing Street. A garden party that violated lockdown rules has ensnared Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain in a scandal that could threaten his hold on power. Here is what to know:

A contentious gathering. The British media reported that as many as 100 staff members were invited to a party in the backyard of Mr. Johnson’s residence in May 2020, when officials were instructing people not to socialize to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Internal investigation. A senior civil servant is investigating the matter. Mr. Johnson faces questions about whether he broke lockdown rules and misled Parliament when he claimed last year that he was told there were no Downing Street parties that breached social-distancing rules.

Mr. Johnson’s response. After facing public backlash, Mr. Johnson, who had previously not admitted his presence at the gathering, issued a contrite apology for attending the event. He claimed that he had viewed the party as a work event that did not breach government regulations.

What’s at stake. The crisis has stoked speculations that the political future of Mr. Johnson might be at risk. Though few Conservatives in Parliament have publicly called on him to quit, if the investigation determines that he misled Parliament, it could cost him his job.

So far, just seven lawmakers have said publicly that they have called for a vote and one of those was Mr. Wakeford. But on Wednesday, the BBC reported that a group of around 10 lawmakers who won their seats in Mr. Johnson’s landslide victory in 2019 had joined them. Many more have criticized him in public, and, in another significant setback to the prime minister, one senior Conservative lawmaker, David Davis, called on Mr. Johnson to quit, saying he had failed to take responsibility for his actions.

“In the name of God, go,” Mr. Davis said in Parliament, citing a quotation used famously in 1940 to urge the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, to resign.

To complicate matters, there is no single faction seeking to destabilize Mr. Johnson in the way that his predecessor, Theresa May, was forced from power in 2019. In her case, most of the plotting to oust her came from hard-line supporters of Brexit.

Mr. Johnson’s enemies include recently elected lawmakers, hard-liners unhappy with the direction of post-Brexit policy, some libertarians who dislike coronavirus restrictions and former ministers who never wanted him to be prime minister in the first place.

Some of those who would like to get rid of Mr. Johnson may be hesitating because they are not yet sure that he would lose a no-confidence motion or because there is no consensus on who should replace him.

The chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, is the front-runner, with the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, also a contender. But if there is a contest to replace Mr. Johnson, several others are likely to step forward.

From those, two candidates would be selected by Conservative lawmakers who would hand that shortlist to party members to make the final decision, injecting another element of unpredictability.

Related Articles

Back to top button