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PM Johnson’s Swan Song

London skyline Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Roar writer Fintan Hogan on the falling popularity of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

On May 11, 2020, Boris Johnson broadcast across 6 channels to 28 million Brits, one of the largest television audiences since the 2012 Olympics. Students were home, offices were shut and the word unprecedented was as common to hear as it is now.

“You can meet one person outside of your household outdoors, provided you stay 2 meters apart“, he announced. Leaked images and emails show that just nine days later he joined around 40 others for a ‘bring your own booze’ shindig in his own garden.

At the time of writing, Johnson claims he “was not warned” that the gathering was against the rules— no doubt undermining his credibility, since he was the one who announced these rules less than a fortnight beforehand. Johnson had repeatedly called for “trust in the British public” as the pandemic evolved.

He should hope that the public has better judgement than he appears to. Labour opposition leader Kier Starmer has branded the repeated leaks of apparent rule-breaking “industrial-scale partying”. The incidents have indeed brought new ironic meaning to Johnson’s position as leader of the Conservative “party”.

Simply put, Johnson has become more of a burden to the Conservatives than an asset. The revelations have led to Starmer polling ahead of Johnson in all 15 leadership characteristics which pollster Redfield & Wilton record. Additionally, he has fallen to just 30% preference in Westminster Voting Intention polling and now sits 25 points below his peak. Excepting periods of lockdown, public approval of him has steadily declined, as would be expected of such a charismatic, yet ill-equipped, political leader.

His purge of party grandees in 2019 may now have bought him some extra time and goodwill among the backbenches, with a strong clique of personality built for himself among members. However, the Tory front bench is an uncomfortable place for many to sit, considering the impressive record of knives in backs enjoyed by its former leaders; Johnson need only look over his shoulder to see Theresa May and Iain Duncan Smith, former Conservative leaders undermined largely from within.

Nesrine Malik, writing in the Guardian, is correct to warn of “fables of fallen gods and a seething populace.” However, the salience of the Covid-19 issue is undoubted (remember when people complained that Brexit dominated the news!). This is no light entertainment, as perhaps Dominic Cummings’ Barnard Castle escapade was in May 2021, which allowed Johnson to portray the eccentric special advisor as the pantomime villain.

Recent news has tapped into public anger about rule-following and elitism, fermented over the past two years as “pandemic fatigue” has set in. Flaunting the rules in his own house, within two months of Covid-19 taking hold, he has infuriated many who feel that they consistently follow public health advice, despite its inconveniences, while the minority in charge enjoy cheese and wine parties. For those who lost loved ones around this period, this will be especially pertinent and they should feel betrayed by his hypocrisy.

This has also hamstrung the credibility of the Johnson administration should any more coronavirus restrictions be necessary. YouGov recorded a 15% fall in British acceptance of government cancelling large events in under a month as the story rolled on. This is the steepest trajectory of descent recorded. Johnson will no longer be able to hide behind Professors Whitty and Valence now that the public has seen how dismissively his own staff treat their advice.

As of January 18, six Conservative MPs have already publicly called on Johnson to resign, just over a month since over 100 of his own MPs revolted, voting against a raft of new covid-19 restrictions. William Wragg, the vice-chairman of the influential 1922 Committee, is among those who have called for his resignation, labelling his actions “indefensible”.

Cabinet members belatedly jumped to Johnson’s defence with bland social media messages, but interview appearances offering support have not been forthcoming from any senior government ministers. 54 MPs would need to write to the 1922 Committee to trigger a no-confidence vote. The number which has been submitted is kept secret, but the Telegraph understood at least 30 had been submitted by January 13, with as many as 20 more of Johnson’s own 2019 intake. A meeting of backbench MPs over lunch on January 18 has been dubbed the “pork pie plot”, as speculation of mounting dissent grows.

On the morning of the 19th, Dan Hodges of the Mail on Sunday reported that letters of no confidence in PM Johnson would reach the 15% threshold the same day. This is likely to dominate PMQs, starting at 12 o’clock.

Wannabe successors are already preparing in the sunset of Johnson’s reign, with Jeremy Hunt (second to Johnson in the 2019 Conservative leadership election) suggesting on January 18 that his ambition for leadership “has not dissipated” – the Westminster equivalent of sharpening his blade. The popular Rishi Sunak has been a silent fence-sitter so far. He, Sajid Javid, and Priti Patel are the most high-profile potential candidates, but all remain in Johnson’s cabinet. Should one resign, a domino process may occur.

But Johnson may yet evade the daggers. The proverbial can was kicked adeptly down the road by the launch of an open-ended investigation by Sue Gray. Gray is a member of the Cabinet Office, having worked as a civil servant since the 1990s; she has been tasked with conducting an inquiry into alleged Covid-19 rule-breaking by Downing Street. Simon Case was originally appointed to the inquiry before accusations of his attendance at similar parties undermined his impartiality.

There has been little indication of how long it will take for political action to take place in the aftermath of its publication, nor what legal recourse will be taken if Gray suggests that rules were, in fact, knowingly broken. Having stated publicly that this was not the case, Johnson would be in conflict with the informal expectations of the ministerial code and would be expected, by convention, to resign. This is the allegation made by Cummings, later denied by Johnson.

One conservative commentator, apparently unironically, suggested that Johnson had to hope that the upcoming Gray report “doesn’t offer him the political equivalent of a revolver and a bottle of whisky“. Junior Tories should probably hope that this is not the case, considering this government’s record of drinking the booze and then firing without hesitation, usually junior staff like Allegra Stratton. Depending on when the final report is published, political anger may have died down, but his popularity is unlikely to substantially recover.

With local elections less than six months away, 2022 will certainly test Johnson’s leadership. He may cling on a while longer – but watch for rats and sinking ships.

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