Johnson Burns Through Political Capital Built With Tory MPs
(Bloomberg) -- The grumbling began even as they lined up in Parliament to vote, objecting to Boris Johnson’s order to rip up the rules rather than accept the punishment of a Conservative colleague found guilty of paid advocacy.
Almost 250 politicians in the U.K.’s ruling party obeyed last week, enough for Johnson to get his way -- initially at least. But dozens refused, and as the backlash forced a U-turn and unleashed days of negative headlines against his Tories, the discontent has morphed into fury at the prime minister’s actions.
One Conservative member of Parliament, a self-described Johnson loyalist, likened the mood to the worst days of wrangling over Brexit, when the Tory party was tearing itself apart over how to split from the European Union.
That infighting ultimately ended Theresa May’s premiership, paving Johnson’s path to Downing Street. Though there’s no sign yet of history repeating itself, the premier’s authority has been dented, leaving him with a fractious party to try to manage and less credit to fall back on if he slips up again.
There is widespread dismay among Tory MPs about what they see as a self-inflicted crisis, which has come at a critical time for Johnson and the party.
It overshadowed his attempt to rescue the global climate change summit he’s hosting. It’s also distracted attention as the government seeks to resolve a spat with the EU that could yet escalate into a full trade war.
“I think for us as a government, it’s fair to say that we need to do better than we did last week,” Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak told Sky News on Thursday. “We know that.”
But Cabinet colleague Nadine Dorries played down concerns from one Tory MP on the parliamentary party WhatsApp group on Thursday night, according to another MP who is a member. While last week wasn’t great, the 2009 expenses scandal was a billion times worse, she said. Dorries is an arch Brexiteer who Johnson promoted to culture secretary in his latest reshuffle of top ministers.
Johnson’s status in the Conservative Party derives in large part from having delivered Brexit, and the huge parliamentary majority he won at the 2019 general election -- and the expectation he can repeat it next time.
As one Tory MP described it on condition of anonymity, it’s a coldly transactional relationship: Johnson wins elections and the party lets him be prime minister. Yet the same person said the fallout over the last week has laid bare the limits of that pact, if Johnson’s popular appeal starts to wane.
It’s why intervening to help his friend and prominent Brexit-backer Owen Paterson last week was so risky. Until Johnson made his move, the former minister’s 30-day suspension for paid lobbying on behalf of two companies was expected to be confirmed by MPs without significant controversy.
By trying to prevent it, Johnson rekindled memories of past sleaze allegations -- British media shorthand for questionable actions ranging from corruption or secretive financial arrangements to sex scandals -- against the Conservatives.
Opposition parties saw parallels between Paterson’s case and ex-Tory leader John Major’s administration, which was sunk in the 1990s in part by the cash-for-questions scandal. Johnson has himself faced probes into his behavior, including over a luxury holiday, and has another one outstanding over the refit of his Downing Street apartment.
What really alarmed some Tory MPs is that a prime minister whose popular appeal is by far his strongest political asset, could so misjudge the public mood. At a time when household incomes are being squeezed by the soaring cost of living, the allegations of sleaze have cut through with voters.
John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, estimates Tory support dropped about 3 percentage points after the Paterson vote. The party is neck-and-neck with Labour for the first time in months in some polls, and Johnson’s personal approval rating slumped to a record low in an Opinium survey for the Observer newspaper.
One Tory MP said it’s still unlikely the party loses the next election due by 2024 -- but it’s now clearer to everybody how it could happen.
In the aftermath of last week’s vote, there was a sense among rank-and-file Conservatives that Johnson had hung them out to dry, forcing them to vote for an unpopular measure that rapidly backfired.
That MPs appeared to benefit from defying Johnson will also set alarm bells ringing in Downing Street.
Aaron Bell, who was elected in one of the many districts that switched to the Tories from Labour in 2019, received emails and cards from around the country lauding him for standing up for democracy and parliamentary rules.
As Bell was receiving handshakes from well-wishers in his Newcastle-under-Lyme constituency, his angry Tory contemporaries met in small groups in Parliament to voice their frustration to older colleagues. Johnson had made them look ridiculous, they said, to save an old friend from his generation.
Johnson’s refusal to apologize has also cost him goodwill. Tory MPs hoped he would do so at a specially convened meeting -- but it never took place.
Yet for all the anger directed at Johnson, there’s no sign of a direct threat to his leadership. One Tory MP said the lack of obvious challenger is part of the frustration, while another pointed out that the public outcry had so far fallen far short of the backlash when Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings broke pandemic regulations last year.
The mood is also more sanguine especially among older Tory MPs, who regard Johnson’s Teflon qualities as well established and expect him to ride out the latest storm.
But as he stood before the global media in Glasgow, Scotland on Wednesday, the challenge facing Johnson was clear. Having pitched the climate summit as a chance to talk up Britain’s post-Brexit credentials, he instead found himself having to defend the U.K. as “not remotely a corrupt country.”
As the Johnson loyalist warned this week, politicians only have so many lives.
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