News Our Way

How Boris Johnson Could Hang On

Is this the week Boris Johnson’s habitual lying catches up with him?

Britain’s prime minister has made a career out of attracting — and beating — scandal built on deception. Johnson got sacked from two jobs for lying: once for making up news stories, and once for lying about an extramarital affair. In a 2004 editorial, Johnson wrongly blamed drunk fans for the deaths of 97 people in a crowd crush at a soccer match years before. He’s been accused of lying to Queen Elizabeth about his motivations for suspending Parliament during Brexit negotiations. A falsehood even helped get Johnson the top job: He falsely claimed, while campaigning to leave the European Union, that London was sending the bloc around $500 million a week that could be spent on British hospitals instead.

Though Johnson not-so-modestly compares himself to his towering predecessor Winston Churchill, his disregard for the truth and ability to ride out scandals also draws comparisons to former President Donald Trump.

But Johnson now faces the greatest challenge to his penchant for rule-breaking: the imminent publication of two investigations into claims that on up to 19 occasions, he or members of his team broke strict Covid lockdown rules they themselves had imposed on the country.

Johnson may survive both reports. If he does, it won’t just be because he enjoys Trump’s Teflon-like immunity to scandal — today 73 percent of voters think Johnson is performing “badly” versus just 22 percent who think he’s doing “well.” Rather, Johnson’s survival will be due more to a uniquely British combination: a convoluted parliamentary system, his success at delivering Brexit, and, above all, the lack of any strong alternative to his premiership.

The first investigation into Partygate, as the scandal is known, is being conducted by an independent official, Sue Gray, whose report is undergoing legal checks ahead of its much-awaited publication.

But when Gray handed evidence to London’s Metropolitan Police this week, prompting them to begin their own criminal investigation, a new threat and new opportunity emerged. While police involvement risks attaching the stench of criminal wrongdoing to Partygate, Johnson’s allies may be able to use the ongoing police investigation as a way to stall or redact publication of Gray’s report.

Either probe could push lawmakers to conduct an internal Conservative Party leadership vote, or allow a vote of confidence in the House of Commons. But Johnson could plausibly emerge the winner in either scenario.

For now, there are more paths for Johnson to survive than to be forced out.

Whether Johnson hangs on as prime minister will depend on members of Parliament from his Conservative Party, many of whom owe Johnson their jobs after he swept them into office in a thumping 2019 election win.

For Johnson to lose a vote of confidence in the House of Commons, at least 38 Conservative MPs would need to vote against him — and that assumes every other member from rival parties votes against Johnson. If successful, this move would also trigger a snap national election, putting the jobs of all MPs on the line in addition to removing Johnson.

An internal party challenge is more likely, but would require an even greater number of defectors: 54 Conservative MPs need to request a vote. Then it would take 180 MPs to rally around an alternative to oust Johnson.

Will Johnson’s party coalesce around him the way Republicans rallied around Trump?

It’s possible. One potential outcome is that Ukraine proves a distraction. If war breaks out in Eastern Europe, wavering MPs have an excuse to focus on matters of national security, rather than quibbles about who drank what and where during Covid lockdown.

Like Trump, Johnson comes from enormous privilege yet operates with an anti-establishment rule-breaking bravado. But unlike Trump, who proved virtually immune to scandals up to and including two impeachments, it’s not clear the UK prime minister has primed a lasting identity-based loyalty.

Johnson also retains luster among the Conservative base and certain swing voters for being the man who — finally — delivered Brexit. But so-called Red Wall voters from Labour’s northern England heartlands, who backed the Conservatives for the first time in the 2019 election, aren’t impressed with Johnson’s antics. Neither are some of the new MPs who owe their seats to him: Last week, Christian Wakeford became the first parliamentary defector from the Conservatives to Labour in 15 years.

Many leading Conservatives backed Johnson despite reservations about his character — because he could win votes. If Johnson can no longer deliver his end of the transaction, the relationship may be finished.

Johnson has, for now, benefited from Keir Starmer’s tepid leadership of the opposition Labour Party. Skilled opposition leaders such as Tony Blair or David Cameron were adept at presenting themselves as credible alternative prime ministers, a threshold many voters think Starmer is yet to cross.

But the stream of allegations is starting to cut through with the country at large. Labour, beaten handily by Johnson’s Conservatives just two years ago, has coasted to an average 9-point lead in opinion polls.

The allegations against Johnson — though minor compared with political scandals around the world — have reeked of hypocrisy. In March 2020, he held up the example of a young girl postponing her birthday party as a model for the nation. Three months later, he joined a 30-strong party to celebrate his own birthday.

Even the comical aspects of Partygate have proven to have sharp political edges.

Celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, the daughter of a leading member of Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet, piled on when Johnson allies suggested he hadn’t meant to join his birthday party, but was perhaps “ambushed by a cake.”

“Ambushed by a cake: it just has to be the title of my next book,” Lawson tweeted snarkily. When MP Conor Burns, a Johnson ally, responded by offering her a recipe, the beloved British chef was not amused. “You think it’s a joke? Says it all,” Lawson replied.

Turning national treasures into Twitter enemies, making a mockery of small girls sacrificing to keep their neighbors safe: It’s the stuff election ads are made of.

Johnson’s profile continues to dwarf those of his most senior ministers, though the gap is closing. One of the main contenders, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Johnson’s equivalent of treasury secretary, is rising fast. Just 41, Sunak joined the Cabinet in 2019, and his stewardship of Covid recovery measures has made him a household name.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is a more experienced minister — in Cabinet for eight years — but has been in her latest post only since September. While she insists she will stick by Johnson “come what may,” Britain’s rivals smell blood. China’s state-affiliated Global Times took time this week to label Truss “Sinophobic” and deride her as “less of an Iron Lady and more of a Chocolate Soldier, someone who might look smart and shiny in a uniform, but is utterly clueless.”

For most British prime ministers, this would be the week that finishes them, but Johnson was never like his predecessors. The same dysfunctionality that brought him to Downing Street may allow him to stick around to be ambushed by next year’s birthday cake.

Still, if all goes wrong for Boris Johnson, he can take consolation from his hero Winston Churchill, who resigned three times from Britain’s Cabinet, before returning just a few years later for a second stint as prime minister, aged 76.

Kate Day and Esther Webber contributed to this report.

%d bloggers like this: