Boris Johnson’s Furious MPs Worry That His Next Misstep Could Be Fatal
(Bloomberg) -- As Boris Johnson’s government spirals out of control, his shell-shocked and angry MPs are wondering where the next blow will come from.
A relentless series of self-inflicted crises have seen the prime minister’s poll ratings plummet over the past few weeks and his party is starting to ask whether the next one could be fatal.
Another unnecessary hit could prompt backbenchers to submit the secret letters that can trigger a no-confidence vote. Or it could be Johnson’s cabinet colleagues who have a quiet word to say his time is up, just as they did in the final throes of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership in 1990.
It’s those senior ministers who pose the most immediate threat, according to John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde.
“Does the majority of the cabinet come to the conclusion they’re no longer willing to bat for him?” Curtice said. “At that point he’s toast.”
A chaotic sequence of events reached its nadir for the prime minister on Wednesday when no one from the government would go out to defend him over an alleged party at his Downing Street residence that breached Covid restrictions at the height of the pandemic.
The moment brought the criticisms of Johnson into sharp focus: his determined denials as the evidence against him piles up, his readiness to send others out to carry the can, and his apparent ability to turn a blind eye to rule-breaking as thousands of people across the country let their relatives die alone rather than risk spreading the virus.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid even pulled out of a planned round of interviews after a video emerged showing No. 10 aides joking about the issue.
“Conservative Party history is littered with ruthlessness on these occasions,” former cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell told the BBC on Thursday, describing the mood in the party as “sulphurous.”
With many of his own MPs starting to publicly question Johnson’s ability to govern, the prime minister this week faces a major rebellion over stricter Covid rules and a difficult by-election in what should be a safe Conservative seat.
The mounting problems are already undermining Johnson’s authority with his party: on Wednesday, Tory MPs lined up in the House of Commons to publicly attack the government's decision to ask people to work from home and introduce vaccine passports in large venues.
“They don’t seem to fear any consequences for that,” said Alice Lilly, a senior researcher at the Institute for Government think tank.
Johnson always had an uneasy relationship with the Conservative Party.
He never dazzled in his previous ministerial roles, nor does he have the loyalty of any particular faction of MPs. He was written off as a buffoon in many quarters until suddenly, after the demise of Theresa May in 2019, his charm and personality — and his triumph as the unofficial face of Brexit — made him irresistible.
That honeymoon period is well and truly over now.
Two polls on Wednesday showed more than half of respondents think Johnson should resign, while a third on Friday gave Keir Starmer’s Labour Party a four-point lead — the Tories’ worst poll rating in 11 months.
For all of the speculation, there’s no sign yet of any immediate challenger to Johnson whom his opponents could rally around. And though both Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Chancellor Rishi Sunak are said to be quietly readying themselves for a potential leadership campaign, the prime minister is also getting support from his cabinet.
“I feel very comfortable about the prime minister’s integrity,” Business Minister Paul Scully told the BBC on Friday. “Clearly though, I don't feel comfortable about the fact that it's been a difficult week for the government.”
The Christmas recess will shut down the parliamentary theater and offer an opportunity to reset. If he hasn’t reestablished control by the end of January, then his opponents — either on the backbenches or in the cabinet — may feel ready to move against him, according to one Tory figure.
Tory MPs speaking on condition of anonymity say they’ve been left high and dry by a government that led them into controversial votes, only to back down the next day. Johnson has also failed to shut down damaging stories by being open and truthful from the start, they said. And they are dismayed that no one in No. 10 was able to prevent mistakes like trying to protect former minister Owen Paterson who was found guilty of paid lobbying.
It was the handling of the Paterson affair that began Johnson’s unraveling and his multiple problems will be in focus again when voters in North Shropshire elect his successor on Thursday — the Liberal Democrats have been distributing leaflets that contrast the festivities of Johnson’s aides with the reality faced by most people last year.
The scandal over the Christmas party has energized the Lib Dem campaign over the past week, one party official said.
A defeat for the Tories in this rural, largely pro-Brexit district would be a massive blow to Johnson’s credibility. Paterson held the seat with a majority of almost 23,000 in 2019, more than 60% of the vote.
But it’s the string of revelations about Downing Street parties, and Johnson’s role in them, that may pose the biggest danger.
The premier faces accusations that several parties were held across government in winter 2020, just as the country faced severe restrictions on socializing, with people even unable to visit dying relatives in hospital.
Three of the alleged gatherings in Whitehall — one of which Johnson is said to have attended — are now being investigated by the U.K.’s top civil servant, Simon Case. Several Tory MPs said they feared that the government’s credibility had been fatally undermined and people would simply refuse to follow new Covid rules.
One Tory MP, William Wragg, told Johnson bluntly in the House of Commons it was a “diversionary tactic” designed to distract from his own problems.
The new rules will pass, thanks to the support of opposition parties, but a major rebellion would inflict serious damage on Johnson all the same.
Another backbencher said they expected a number of MPs to decide Tuesday was the perfect day to knock on doors in North Shropshire so they could avoid the vote, particularly ministerial aides who would lose their jobs if they failed to back the government.
“People don’t trust a word that’s coming out of Boris Johnson’s mouth at the moment,” said Chris Curtis, senior research manager at polling company Opinium.
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