Johnson in extremis

Before Christmas I remarked that British prime minister Boris Johnson was “looking at a difficult winter ahead.” I was not wrong: less than half way through January, Johnson is already in deep trouble, with the revelation of yet another apparent breach of the Covid rules, in the shape of a May 2020 drinks event (BYO) in the garden of his official residence.

On Wednesday Johnson admitted to being present at the event, although he continues to deny that this was a definite breach of the rules or that he should pay any penalty for it. An enquiry in progress into this and other similar events is expected to report within a week or so, and Johnson and his supporters insist that nothing further should be done about it until then.

That hasn’t, however, stopped both the opposition and several members of his own party calling for Johnson’s resignation, and much of the British media has adopted the attitude that his days are numbered. The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg says that “many conversations in the Commons are about the manner and timing of Boris Johnson’s departure, not really the question about whether or not he can survive.”

Martin Kettle in the Guardian is more trenchant:

Conservative MPs are well aware their leader is a dodgy chancer. Some of them actively admire this. Others are happy to profit from it. Many loathe it while quietly despising themselves for permitting it. But the style works only while it succeeds. …

Tory MPs find themselves on the threshold of a leadership change.

The Conservative Party is an unforgiving beast. Of the last five Conservative prime ministers, only one, John Major, survived long enough to be dismissed by the voters. Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May both resigned after being badly wounded by leadership challenges; David Cameron did the same after the Brexit referendum had made his position untenable. Another three leaders in opposition resigned or were deposed.

Having prospered by undermining his two predecessors, Johnson can hardly complain if his colleagues show the same ruthlessness towards him. It seems, however, as if this is less a case of concerted plotting and more of internal collapse – MPs are getting to the point of deciding that Johnson has to go even before they have started to think much about who is going to replace him.

Johnson has survived near-death experiences before, so another unlikely comeback should not be ruled out. If he does go, the two front runners for the job are the chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak, and the foreign secretary, Liz Truss. Sunak supported Brexit and Truss opposed it, but both supported Johnson in the 2019 leadership election. It goes without saying that neither has Johnson’s larger-than-life public profile; nervous MPs may well regard that as a distinct advantage.

If parliament serves its full five-year term – and there’s no reason why it should not, since the government has an 85-seat majority – the next election is not due until late 2024. That gives the Tories plenty of time to get their act together, but it also means that by that point they will have been in government for 13 and a half years. Many voters will be thinking by then that it’s time for a change, and Labour, under the safe if unexciting Keir Starmer, will have to fancy its chances.

Johnson’s woes also make one wonder about the survival of Australia’s Scott Morrison, who seems to share all of Johnson’s shortcomings without any of his strengths (unless dullness is itself a strength). It’s not as if the Liberal Party is known for a lack of ruthlessness; its record of dispatching leaders will easily stand comparison with that of the Conservatives.

Perhaps the sad truth is that the Liberal Party has gone that much further down the road of denuding itself of talent, so that Morrison’s blithe incompetence no longer seems anything out of the ordinary, but rather just par for the course.

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