Tue. Jan 18th, 2022


Perhaps in the future, groups of schoolchildren visiting the Houses of Parliament will stand still before the statue of a former prime minister. As they study his face, the tumultuous hair finally tamed into bronze, the teacher will explain that it is Boris Johnson, a leader of undeniable historical significance who was let down by a “bring your own bottle” party.

As is so often the case with leaders, the Prime Minister’s undoing may have been the characteristics that once made him attractive to voters, in this case his disrespect and indifference. With the big Brexit battles won, allies are less tolerant of its weaknesses. A series of unforeseen mistakes that led to the revelation that he had broken his own Covid laws by allowing a party in the Downing Street garden, or at least attending, now puts him in serious danger.

He is not ready to give up the fight. Major staff changes in Downing Street are likely. He used Prime Minister’s questions to make another of those humble excuses he usually does not want to offer. The grumpy silence of his own MPs suggested little true conviction that his partial confessions were sufficient, especially after the days of eclipse, but also a reluctant acceptance that he had bought himself some time. But even if he can get past the immediate crisis, which has shocked both voters and colleagues, it is difficult to see how he can regain his authority and popularity. One seasoned operator remarks: “It is not sustainable. I can not say exactly how it plays out, but I do not see that it ends well. “

It’s not easy to oust a sitting prime minister and Johnson’s ability to get out of scratch is legendary. But increasingly Tories are wondering if the only choices left for them are a surgical strike or imminent death.

In the midst of fast-moving political situations, one can lose sight of the underlying orbits. But even before this new crisis, Johnson’s popularity had clearly declined since June. The strange place poll will bubble up but the overall path is clear. Among all voters, the percentage who say he does good work has dropped from 48 percent to 23. The pattern is the same among Tory voters, albeit from a much higher peak. On the “best prime minister” question, he has now undertaken Labor leader Keir Starmer. Labor’s current priority is more due to a Tory fall than any sudden surge of enthusiasm, and absolute victory will still require the extent of national swing seen only twice since the war. But depriving the Tories of their majority now seems possible.

The conclusion Johnson’s vengeful former strategist, Dominic Cummings, is an appeal to Tories to achieve, is that the Prime Minister has become an obstacle to their prospects. This latest setback drives MPs to Cummings’ claim that they can only win with a “new prime minister”.

There is no direct sanction for a prime minister who violates the rules. Labor can cause a formal vote of confidence, but the most likely way to remove Johnson is a competition triggered by his own side. While 53 MPs can enforce a leadership vote, the victory will require half of the parliamentary party, some 180 MPs, to oppose him. Since a challenge can only take place once every 12 months, his enemies will not want to shoot and miss. The temptation to wait until after the local elections in May will be strong.

For now, Tory MPs could, as intended, hide behind an investigation by a senior government official, Sue Gray. But it misses the broader point. Legalism is never the way to walk with voters. MPs may wait for the report, but they will take false comfort if it somehow allows Johnson to unwind. The image of him at a party in his own garden at a time when such events were banned and people saw family members die alone would speak louder than any report. It was arrogant, mindless and lacked basic decency. The idea that a sitting prime minister did not know of a social event when he saw one is unbelievable. No MP should need an inquiry to know where they stand on this.

There are reasons why Tories are reluctant to strike. Some will want to see if the semi-excuse does suppress public anger. They do not know who will come next and are worried that only Johnson can hold his broad election coalition together. But while some may hope he can recover, they can see nothing to reverse the downward trend. Coming months will be dominated by rising cost of living, tax increases, Brexit disruptions and queues over net zero policies. Events can change the dynamics, but there is no obvious moment of procrastination.

This leaves Tories relying on Labor to remain unattractive when voters face a real choice in an election. It is certainly possible, but if the polls do not recover, MPs will not run the risk of waiting to find out on the day.

Johnson’s strategy, as always, is to be temporary, hoping his enemies are afraid to strike before the local elections and count on something to turn up to restore his support. He may suddenly see the value of backbench claims for the temporary abolition of VAT on energy bills. But his MPs are furious and there is a cadre of people, especially Cummings himself, committed to his removal.

Traits that Johnson once loved among his supporters are now seen as an obstacle to good governance. Even this most Teflon leader might find this latest display of amorality too much. Voters see both his personal weaknesses and the collapse in his authority over his own MPs.

In this case, Tory MPs will be controlled by fear. They will not act until their fear of a defeat outweighs their fear of hitting, but the gap between those two points is rapidly narrowing.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com



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