Boris Johnson faces his first serious election test since his reputation hit rock bottom
The vote comes as Johnson and his ruling Conservatives are surrounded by scandals and crises so serious that members of his own party have publicly called for his resignation. Indeed, the most pressing of those scandals, which saw Johnson fined by police for breaking his own Covid rules during the 2020 lockdown, could have led to his ousting from office under normal circumstances.
And yet, Johnson has proven time and time again that he is unique among politicians and capable of rolling every punch. What is unknown at this time is whether any of those punches, while failing to knock out the Prime Minister, caused enough damage for Johnson to ultimately be convicted.
A brief glimpse of the wreckage currently surrounding Johnson would be enough to make most throw in the towel.
The numerous incidents involved in the Partygate scandal, for which Johnson has previously been found guilty of breaking the law, are still under investigation by police. Further fines have been imposed on people who worked with the Prime Minister in Downing Street and it is entirely possible that Johnson could be fined again.
Once the police are done, senior civil servant Sue Gray will release her full report into the scandal, which is likely to be very critical of Johnson, if the parts already released are to be believed.
Johnson is also haunting the prospect that he will be found guilty of willfully misleading Parliament when, in response to allegations of lockdown-breaking gatherings in Downing Street, he told lawmakers the rules were followed at all times. According to the ministerial code, such an eventuality would normally lead to a resignation.
The sense of crisis surrounding Johnson’s premiership goes far beyond Partygate.
His party was accused of having a serious problem with misogyny last week, after one of his backbenchers told the Mail on Sunday newspaper anonymously that Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the Labor Party of opposition, had tried to distract Johnson in the House of Commons by crossing and uncrossing her legs, similar to Sharon Stone’s character in the movie “Basic Instinct.”
Rayner described the claims as “despicable lies” and tweeted that “Boris Johnson’s cheerleaders have resorted to spreading desperate and evil smears in their doomed attempts to save his ass.” Johnson himself criticized the Mail story as “appalling and misogynistic guts” and said he would unleash the “terrors of the earth” on the source if found.
And on Saturday, another lawmaker from Johnson’s party, Neil Parish, said he would resign after admitting to watching pornography on multiple occasions in the House of Commons.
Meanwhile, 56 MPs are currently under investigation for sexual misconduct, with members of Johnson’s cabinet believed by government insiders to be on the list.
Add to all that a Brexit-related cost-of-living crisis and Johnson’s fate heading into this election looks grim. UK inflation is at its highest level in 30 years and the Prime Minister’s critics have accused him of having no serious response to the crisis.
When asked in an interview on Tuesday to give advice to an elderly widow whose energy bills had risen so much that she had to take the bus all day to stay warm, Johnson began his answer taking credit for introducing free bus passes when he was Mayor of London.
While the precariousness of his situation is not evident on a day-to-day basis, it was starkly underscored earlier this month when he had to withdraw an amendment to a motion that would allow a parliamentary inquiry into Partygate because, despite his parliamentary majority of 75, the government was not sufficiently convinced that a sufficient number of deputies would support the Prime Minister.
“Put simply, the whips didn’t know they didn’t have the votes to back the prime minister,” said a veteran Tory MP. “If MPs don’t talk to the whips, then you’re in serious trouble.”
Despite all that, it’s still unclear whether Johnson should step down or be sacked – and some believe it’s entirely possible he’ll fight in the next general election in 2024.
How can this be the case with so many immediate perils?
First, local elections may not be as dire as many around Johnson fear. “Local elections ask voters a different set of questions than national elections,” says Chris Curtis, head of political polling at Opinium Research.
“People could vote for a local councilor they know, like and see as being a million miles from Westminster. It’s harder for MPs who have to defend the Prime Minister in parliament,” he adds .
Essentially, the results of this election may not reflect the broad voter dissatisfaction with Johnson, which features in national polls virtually every week. In other words, they might not be the irrefutable gun that MPs who want to get rid of Johnson need to finally act.
“A lot of us are very angry, but we know that getting rid of another prime minister is not a good idea. We need a really good reason to justify it to the public and I don’t think just not that these election results will be,” says a former Conservative cabinet minister.
There is also a growing feeling among Tory MPs that even the Gray report on Partygate may not be enough to force Johnson out of office, because the longer the story goes on, the less MPs think the public cares.
For Johnson’s fiercest critics, that leaves them with a worst-case scenario: a chaotic government they cannot unseat just as the cost of living crisis hits millions of Britons.
And while the cost of living crisis is driven by multiple factors, including the resumption of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, there is one element that is unique to the UK: Brexit.
A report published last week by UK in a Changing Europe, an independent research body, estimated that since the UK left the European Union’s single market and customs union in January 2021, prices for food increased by 6%. If this trend continues, it could be particularly damaging for Johnson, the man who led the campaign to leave the EU.
“People who say the cost of living has nothing to do with Brexit are in denial,” says Jonathan Portes, professor of economics at King’s College London. “In the long term, it reduces imports and exports and it risks making us a little poorer than we would have been otherwise.
There is no doubt that the next general election will be determined by how the outgoing government, Johnson-led or not, handles this cost-of-living crisis.
For many Conservative MPs, this is causing sleepless nights. Many simply don’t think Johnson is capable of meeting the challenges the UK currently faces and privately hope the Gray report has something serious enough that they can finally get rid of him, ideally… September.
Until that happens, Johnson remains in power but his authority is badly damaged. The public, according to polls, largely believes he is untrustworthy, while his own backbenchers cannot be counted on to back him up.
Those who want him out are hoping he quits, even though, to date, Johnson has ruled him out. All of this means that the Conservative Party finds itself in the unenviable position of not being strong enough to fire its leader, who in turn is not strong enough to command the loyalty of its MPs.
Johnson could still overthrow everything, but the longer it goes on, the more the stench of inevitable death around him and his government will fester, making the prospect of fighting the next election unenviable even for those with a stomach. The Strongest.