Boris Johnson Is at the Beginning of the End
Boris Johnson Is at the Beginning of the End
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s moment of reckoning has arrived at last.
After months of speculation and scandal that have soured his premiership, Mr. Johnson was forced on Monday to face a no-confidence vote, instigated by his increasingly restive and unhappy party. On a dramatic day in Parliament he eked out a victory, taking 211 votes to 148. It was, he said in a defiant response, a victory that meant “we can focus on the stuff that really matters.”
That’s optimistic. Technically, Mr. Johnson ought to be safe from another challenge to his leadership for a year. But the truth is bleaker: In British politics, there is no such thing as victory in a confidence vote. Instead, it tends to mark the beginning of the end, the start of a leader’s slow death. Theresa May announced her resignation less than six months after winning hers (by a bigger margin), while Margaret Thatcher lasted just 48 hours. John Major managed to stay in office after winning his. The result was electoral annihilation.
Mr. Johnson’s supporters insist that he is the exception to the rule, that he isn’t, as one minister put it on TV, a “dead man walking.” There was a time when the bulk of Conservative lawmakers would have believed the claim. No longer. Rejected by many in his party and facing a public backlash, Mr. Johnson is now badly, perhaps fatally, wounded. The likelihood that he leads the party into the next election has plummeted.
It’s a remarkable decline. In the Conservative Party, Mr. Johnson has long been the man who defies the rules of political gravity. In his time in public office, he has survived personal scandals that would have sunk most careers and pulled off electoral victories that eluded his predecessors. He won the mayoralty — twice — in Labour-voting London, led the Leave campaign to victory in the Brexit referendum and in 2019 secured the largest Tory majority since the days of Mrs. Thatcher.
Lately, though, he appears to be worryingly mortal. His approval ratings have steadily fallen: According to a recent poll, 59 percent of British adults want him to leave office. In a sign of national disapproval, Mr. Johnson was greeted with boos and jeers at the Platinum Jubilee service on Friday. It’s not that a Conservative politician being booed is rare; in fact, it’s quite common. It’s that such a thing is not supposed to happen to him.
That is no small issue for a prime minister whose relationship with his party has always been transactional. Conservatives backed him primarily not because they liked him or owed him loyalty or thought he shared their vision. They backed him because they believed he was a winner. Now that this no longer seems to be the case — the Conservatives, suffering from Mr. Johnson’s nosediving popularity, are polling seven percentage points behind the opposition Labor Party — lawmakers are revising their opinions.
The biggest factor in Mr. Johnson’s fall from grace, of course, is Partygate. In a scandal that shook British politics, he and members of his staff were accused of repeatedly breaching lockdown rules. The breaches led to a police investigation, during which he became the first sitting prime minister to be fined by the police, and a drawn-out independent inquiry, which unearthed lurid details of partying at Downing Street. He became vulnerable to one of the most dangerous charges in British politics: hypocrisy. The public was incensed.
It doesn’t help that Mr. Johnson has shown little in the way of contrition. The prime minister is well known for his dislike of apologies. Even in the hours before the vote, as his team desperately tried to shore up support, he hardly struck a chastened tone. In a signed letter to colleagues, he grudgingly admitted that “some of that criticism has perhaps been fair” — before quickly adding, “some less so.”
But his bombast, often so effective, has at last misfired. Lawmakers from different wings of the party have united against him: Figures who never liked him have joined ranks with dedicated Brexiteers unhappy at his cavalier attitude and devout Christians upset by what they regard as his amorality. The depth and breadth of internal opposition mean it cannot be dismissed as the work of those who dislike Brexit or are nursing personal grudges.
Yet the fraying of Mr. Johnson’s relationship with his party long predates the past few months. Conservative lawmakers have felt that their voices were not being listened to pretty much since he won power so comprehensively in 2019. Things really took a turn for the worse at the end of 2021, when he told his party to back a legislator suspended for a breach of lobbying rules, only to suddenly reverse course. For many younger lawmakers, it proved that Mr. Johnson did not know what he was doing and that he could not be trusted.
Nevertheless, Mr. Johnson’s staff members are hopeful that he can rebuild his authority. A new team of aides was brought in this year to stave off rebellion. Along with the war in Ukraine, which allowed him to play the statesman, this reorganization bought the prime minister time. But as efforts to renew trust have become less energetic, a bleak electoral reality has seeped into view.
The problem for Mr. Johnson is that there isn’t much good news coming down the line. After the government’s failure so far to flesh out the pledge to “level up” the country and its decision to raise taxes, few are enthused by his domestic agenda. This disquiet is compounded by the cost of living crisis, as inflation continues to rise.
What’s more, elections this month in two contrasting seats — Wakefield, a northern constituency recently prized from Labor, and Tiverton and Honiton, a traditionally Conservative constituency in the southwest — could prove damaging. If they go against the Conservatives, as seems possible, it would amount to a major blow. Then there’s the small matter of a House of Commons investigation into whether Mr. Johnson misled Parliament, usually a resigning offense.
While Mr. Johnson may be safe, in theory, for another 12 months, no one really thinks that is the case. The rules governing the Conservative Party are opaque and can be changed in an afternoon. The sense among senior Tories is that if a majority turns against Mr. Johnson, he will be gone before the year is out.
The prime minister, of course, has defied the odds multiple times. But as Mr. Johnson attempts to move on from a painful, authority-draining vote, it’s hard to escape the feeling that this cat is on his ninth and final life.
The New York Times