Malik Nasir Mahmood Aslam looks at the predicament faced by the embattled British PM
Since Boris Johnson had a close shave delivering a thumping victory for his Conservative Party in the last general elections the career of British PM Boris Johnson has been downhill with his own party showing clear signs of getting tired of him. Few would have predicted such a direct challenge to his authority in December 2019, when he secured the biggest Tory parliamentary majority since the early 1980s heyday of Margaret Thatcher. The landslide victory of 72 seats allowed him to unblock several years of political paralysis since the divisive 2016 Brexit vote and take Britain out of the European Union just a month later. The turnaround in political fortunes of Boris Johnson, dubbed Bojo, is indeed phenomenal as it is now abundantly clear that proverbial Teflon chip that never let anything negative stick to him has finally disappeared.
The reversal of fortune for him was steeper than he thought as the polls suggested that his approval rating had plunged to a bare 13 per cent. It was feared that axe may fall much earlier than expected and that is precisely what has happened. Johnson, in office since 2019, was informed he would face a vote on his leadership during the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, after weeks of speculation over his future. The ballot was triggered by Conservative MPs after at least 15% of them wrote letters of no confidence to Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the party’s backbench 1922 Committee. Discontent among Tory MPs has grown since a highly critical report into lockdown parties in and near Downing Street during the Covid-19 pandemic was published. The report laid bare the extent of Covid rule-breaking in Number 10, including at a birthday party and Johnson was fined by the police for attending in June 2020 meaning that he became the UK’s first serving prime minister to be sanctioned for breaking the law.
Some Tory MPs have also expressed dissent over tax rises, the government’s response to rising living costs and its policy direction. The result was a no-confidence motion in his leadership of the party and the outcome of the vote proved to be quite harrowing for Johnson although he won by a count of 211 MPs voting for him and 148 against but the arithmetic showed that the party considers that the country would be better off short of him. It was repeatedly pointed out that the voters in this contest were MPs and not just floating voters and that this was a far higher proportion of his MPs attempting to eject him than wanted rid of Theresa May when she faced a confidence vote and, quite intriguingly, she was gone within six months. Quite apparently the result is at the upper end of the expectations of the rebels, who never expected to win. Johnson received 59 per cent of the vote that was lower than 63 per cent received by Theresa My in 2018 indicating that the scale of the rebellion against him showed his authority had been weakened, with some calling on him to resign.
This was quite a come down for Boris Johnson who was once described as greased piglet for his uncanny powers of political escapology that he possessed more than most in his career. But with some 40 per cent of Tory MPs refusing to back him, his authority has been severely weakened. The vote topped a tumultuous nearly three years in power for Johnson, dominated by the implementation of Brexit and the response to the pandemic with his handling of the health crisis laid bare a chaotic governing style. He was accused of not taking the threat seriously enough in the early days, imposing lockdowns too late or lifting them too soon. Moreover, normal checks and balances for procurement were thrown out of the window in the rush to respond: friends and associates of those in high places benefited from lucrative contracts and it was repeatedly pointed out that enough money was wasted.
Boris Johnson was known as a rarity in conservative political arena having the uncanny ability of appealing to people who would not normally vote for the Conservative Party and the result was that in 2008 he wrested from Ken Livingston, the charismatic and powerful mayor of London, a Labour Party stronghold, the position of the mayor and was widely credited for organising successful London Olympic Games under his watch. He remained more popular than the then PM David Cameron who was his political competitor since their college days. After a unsuccessful stint in office of Theresa May, Johnson propelled his party to a landslide victory and the prime minister’s job in the general election of 2019 with a Tory surge in traditional Labour constituencies. The next general election is expected to be held in 2024 but could be earlier if Johnson uses his powers to call one. The next tests for him are by-elections in two constituencies on the same day this month following the resignation of two Tory MPs.
It is widely held that a series of unforced errors have caused Johnson’s fall from grace that have also highlighted three of his inherent weaknesses described to be dishonesty, cronyism and a dilettante attitude to the affairs of state. It is reported that even his closest aides complain about Johnson losing his magic on account of his wayward approach to governance and fear that he not be able to complete his term in office. Throughout his brief stint in power Johnson was beset by scandals and the first was his attempts to shield veteran Conservative MP Owen Paterson from punishment by a Commons corruption watchdog over his work for lobbyists but the ensuing furor in Parliament and the media was so intense that Paterson resigned instead, leaving Johnson to answer charges of condoning corruption in his own party. Then came another when the independent Electoral Commission fined the Conservative Party £17,800 for inaccurately reporting the funding of a redecoration of Johnson’s official Downing Street flat, which had in fact been paid for by Tory donors.
As if this was not enough, the biggest disaster was leaked video footage from December 2020 of then-Downing Street press spokeswoman laughing and joking about breaking of COVID-19 rules at a No. 10 Christmas party. What caused intense indignation when this spokeswoman was recorded as saying that this fictional party was a business meeting and that it was not socially distanced before breaking down in giggles. Crucially, at that time Britain was in a strict COVID-19 lockdown, with Christmas gatherings banned and only those designated as essential workers allowed to go to the office. Though the spokeswoman resigned but senior ministers were so embarrassed that they canceled scheduled media appearances in order to avoid answering awkward questions. However, Johnson added fuel to fire by strenuously denying the event. Taken separately, such scandals would be mere bumps in the road for a government with a 72-seat majority in the parliament but the cumulative effect of these missteps has damaged Johnson’s standing with his party base and senior loyalists alike, perhaps fatally. Moreover, the governance pattern of Johnson has left his party’s standing in tatters and though he could not be challenged in a leadership battle again for a year but may well find that ground has decisively shifted from under his feet. TW