Rolling Rebellions May Become a Lasting Scar for Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson suffered a revolt by 55 of his own Conservative Party colleagues Tuesday -- his biggest rebellion in a parliamentary vote since he won a historic majority at last December’s election.

The scale of the Tory uprising over England’s new pandemic restrictions is a clear warning that the prime minister’s authority has been badly damaged. It may also be a sign that four years of Brexit turmoil have left British politics permanently scarred.

Rebellions are nothing new at Westminster, but it’s clear Johnson cannot rely on his parliamentary party to back him up in the way that former premiers with big majorities could.

Rolling Rebellions May Become a Lasting Scar for Boris Johnson

“I think this is something that’s been brewing for the last decade or so,” Alice Lilly, senior researcher with the Institute for Government think tank, said in an interview. Governments with wafer-thin majorities or even minorities, such as under Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, mean rank-and-file members of Parliament “have tended to hold the balance of power a lot of the time, and the influence they’ve had has often been greater than it has in the past.”

Part of this is the legacy of Brexit. Like the 2016 vote to leave the European Union, opinions on pandemic strategy cut across party divisions. The Brexit vote split the U.K. neatly in half, and May’s three years in power were defined by a succession of rebellions and historic defeats -- often stoked by Johnson -- over her plans for leaving the EU.

Much ‘to Unpack’

Privately, some in Johnson’s team agree that the culture of British politics has changed, with MPs now more willing to speak out against their bosses, especially when they see a leader who will change his mind if they make enough noise.

Coronavirus further complicated British politics because it does not “neatly fall into party lines,” Lilly said. “With Covid you have the health implications, the economic implications and the questions about people’s liberties, and actually I think that just becomes quite tricky for MPs to unpack.”

In the year since the Tories swept to victory with the party’s biggest majority since Margaret Thatcher’s in 1987, the pandemic has battered Johnson, personally and politically. Coronavirus hit the U.K. with the highest death toll in Europe, government borrowing is now at almost 400 billion pounds ($537 billion), and the economy is suffering its deepest recession since the Great Frost of 1709.

Scale of Revolt

Goodwill toward Johnson has been in short supply, even after last month’s departure of his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, who was unpopular even among Conservatives. MPs have been increasingly vocal in their opposition to Johnson’s Covid-19 strategy, warning of the impact restrictions are having on people’s mental health and livelihoods.

On paper, if the opposition Labour party had joined Tuesday night’s Tory revolt, Johnson’s majority of 80 would have been wiped out and he would have lost that vital vote. With the prospect of further showdowns on pandemic strategy in the new year, and hard decisions on tax raising or spending cuts in the months ahead, the prime minister’s team knows he needs to do more to get his party back on side.

Some are pinning their hopes on a vaccine to change not just the fortunes of the economy, allowing citizens to return to something like normal life, but a rebirth of Johnson’s own leadership and his government’s mission.

The risk, though, is that the scale of Tuesday’s revolt, just one year into a five-year term in office, is a sign that Johnson’s problems have only just begun.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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