Boris Johnson was already facing the worst crisis of his political career on Wednesday when, with a hangdog expression, he offered excuses in parliament to break the UK’s strict coronavirus lock-in by attending a party in his own backyard.
By Friday, things were only getting worse for the prime minister amid new revelations of parties locking up in the basement of 10 Downing Street and his staff drinking and dancing until dawn when the country followed draconian restrictions on social mixing.
This time Johnson was forced to apologize to the queen, who was pictured just hours after the reported parties took place last April while mourning at the funeral of her husband, Prince Philip, alone.
When Johnson first faced British voters as prime minister, just months before the pandemic turned politics around, many supporters disregarded the rules most politicians feel compelled to heed. Some were even attracted to his well-documented flirtations with scandals, such as those with a tendency to mock himself.
In recent weeks, however, following a protracted stream of allegations made in the media about a series of lock-in parties, he has been forced to admit that the jokes are getting thinner.
As bookmakers have reduced the odds Johnson forced out, and opinion polls showed confidence in his leadership cratering, political commentators wondered if this scandal was one too far. Rishi Sunak, Chancellor, and Foreign Minister Liz Truss, are presumably waiting in the wings as, among others, potential successors.
“I think he’s in serious trouble this time,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary’s University in London and author of The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron. “It’s not just about him. Many of his colleagues can endure his fall if it does not affect their own chances. They are very worried. “
Johnson, a former journalist who was London’s mayor and then foreign minister before succeeding Theresa May as prime minister, proved a master of chicanery.
This time, however, it was difficult to unwrap. A leaked email invitation to a “bring your own drink” party which was sent out to 100 staff by its private secretary in May 2020, when draconian restrictions were in place, was substantiated by numerous participants.
“I know millions of people across this country have made extraordinary sacrifices over the past 18 months,” he told parliament when he expressed his regret. “I know the anger they feel with me and with the government I lead when they think in Downing Street itself the rules are not properly followed by the people who make the rules.”
Therein lies the rub. One reason voters were originally drawn to Johnson was that he appeared more open and at ease about his own transgressions than other politicians. But the youngest, who came when most of the population adhered to the letter of the law, even when family members died in isolation, was hypocritical.
Johnson’s apology that he thought the party was a “job” was ridiculed by Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labor Party and a former prosecutor, who accused him of “disrespecting the public” “treated.
The outage was explosive amid a spate of previous allegations of corruption and his handling of the UK’s 150,000 life pandemic, Johnson’s own persistent denials, and a emerging mutiny among backbenchers. The economic context is also grim, with the cost of living rising and tax increases on the way.
Voters fired a warning shot at a by-election last month in one of the party’s safest seats so far, where the Liberal Democrats overthrew a massive Conservative majority. This week, the party was 10 points behind Labor in the polls with Johnson’s own ratings now well below Starmer’s.
It was a quick turnaround. Back in 2019, when parliament was paralyzed by the effects of the EU referendum, Johnson was backed by the party as the man to save their brand and “get Brexit done” for fear they might be out of power for years. Even those who disapproved of it held their noses in the hope that his charisma on the stump would help bring about a turnaround, and it did.
While digging into the knife last week, Dominic Cummings, his estranged former adviser who, for his indecision, compared the prime minister to a shopping trolley swinging from path to path, reversed the logic behind his climb.
“If the trolley is left broken for another two years, the Tories can not only lose, but also be so discredited that they are out for a decade,” he wrote in a blog post.
That fear now weighs on conservative MPs, five of them publicly asked for Johnson’s resignation. Whether that happens depends in part on Sue Gray, a senior government official tasked with investigating the circumstances behind the governing parties. Johnson called for patience until Gray’s findings were made public, and gambled that she would not directly censor him.
It is not easy to remove a sitting Conservative prime minister. For that to happen, 54 party members will first have to cast a no-confidence vote. A majority will then have to support it. The party would then go through the process of electing a new prime minister.
“There is concern in the party, no doubt. Your gut tells you the man should go, ”says Ed Costelloe, who runs Grassroots Conservatives, a party pressure group.
He picked up the results of a survey among ordinary members on Friday. About 60 percent supported Johnson to stay on, with the rest seeking his resignation. Among the public, opinion polls show nearly two-thirds of voters want him out.
Costelloe said he is on the fence, worried like many conservatives that there is no guaranteed successor to the star dust that Johnson has apparently had with voters until very recently. “It might be a case of better the devil you know,” he said.