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24 January, 2022  ▪  Michael Binyon

From love to hate

How could the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson remain in his office after another scandal

No British Prime Minister has had to suffer such a public humiliation. As public fury mounted, politicians squirmed and ever more details were leaked of secret parties in Downing Street while the rest of the nation was in strict lockdown last year, Boris Johnson was forced to offer an abject apology to Parliament for breaking the rules on Covid restrictions that his own government had imposed.

   Not only that: three days later he was forced to apologise to the Queen, when further details were revealed of two drunken parties held by his staff in his residence on the day before the funeral of Prince Philip, when the nation was in mourning for the Queen’s husband. 

   Few members of his own Conservative party and few voters were convinced that he was truly sorry or that he would overcome this latest in a series of scandals about his personal behaviour and morality. Many are openly now calling for his resignation. Senior Conservatives have said that his future was in the balance and that there would be a challenge to his leadership.  It looks as though Johnson’s days as prime minister are numbered.

  Johnson has been caught up in a series of scandals and political rows in the past two months that have quickly eroded his former popularity. He took over from Theresa May as prime minister in July 2019. In elections in December he won a huge majority for his party, largely because he was not seen as a conventional politician but someone who was untidy (especially his hair), bouncy, enthusiastic and easily able to connect with ordinary people. But from the start it was clear he would not stick by normal rules. He suspended some long-standing party members who did not back his pro-Brexit stance. He then suspended parliament to prevent it voting against his Brexit proposals. This caused a huge constitutional row and the Supreme Court found his action was illegal. He had to bring Parliament back and apologise to the Queen – the first of several apologies.

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  Getting Brexit done at the end of 2019 was a success, and his popularity soared. But when the pandemic hit, Johnson was criticised for his slow response and for government indecision on lock-down. Eventually he imposed a tough lockdown on all the nation in 2020, making it illegal for anyone to leave their house and forbidding any gathering with strangers – either outdoors or indoors. It was unpopular, but seemed to work. 

  In the past three months, however, there has been one scandal after another. Johnson has acquitted a reputation for chaotic management, poor decision-making, inattention to detail, laziness, deception and outright lying. Most Conservative MPs still backed him – though many admitted that it was becoming difficult to justify his erratic behaviour. Across the country he was still more popular than the opposition Labour party, still recovering after its disastrous performance in 2019. Its new leader, Keir Starmer, was still struggling to control his left-wingers and project a profile to the country.

  Johnson’s popularity began to crumble with the first scandal – when his chief aide, Dominic Cummings, broke the covid rules by travelling far from his home with no valid reason. Johnson refused to sack Cummings, which angered the country. But when he did so, Cummings launched a vendetta, telling the press of many ways in which Johnson had lied, deceived his colleagues and acted as though the normal rules did not apply to him.

   The first scandal was over the refurbishment of the prime minister’s house, at No. 10 Downing Street. Johnson hid the fact that it cost a vast amount of money and that he had illegally got friends to pay for it. The wallpaper alone was vastly expensive. There was an official inquiry, and Johnson was found to have concealed key details of the arrangement. Then came a row over a senior member of the Conservative party, Owen Paterson. A former cabinet minister, he was caught taking money from a private firm to push its interests. The parliamentary body overseeing standards condemned him and ordered his suspension from Parliament. Johnson intervened to try to change the rules and drop the charges against his friend. He ordered his party to vote for the changes. Many were furious and said this was corrupt, but reluctantly voted to do so. But after a public outcry, Johnson changed his mind and the MP resigned from Parliament. In the subsequent by-election for his seat, the Conservatives suffered a massive loss, with a swing of more than 30 per cent to the opposition Liberal Democrats. Many Conservatives became alarmed for their own future.

  When stories of parties in Downing Street began to emerge, Johnson at first denied that there had been any. But when a picture was published showing him and his wife attending a gathering in their garden with wine and cheese, he claimed this had been a “work meeting”. This caused ridicule across the country. It was clearly illegal to meet socially during strict lockdown. People recalled that they could not even visit relatives dying in hospital at that time or attend funerals with more than six people. “There’s one rule for us, and one rule for them” many voters said.

  The latest scandals have also prompted criticism of Johnson’s political failures. Many promises have been broken. Brexit has not been a success. Visitors to the European Union have faced new restrictions on their movements and demands for more paperwork. Exports to Europe have fallen sharply, huge numbers of Europeans have left their jobs and the country has been hit with staff shortages in the health service and across the economy. Prices have risen, there have been fuel shortages, inflation has gone up and standards of living have fallen. Many business leaders have called for clear guidance on how to handle the post-Brexit economy. But at a key speech to them last year, Johnson gave a rambling speech devoid of content, became confused and instead spent a long time talking about his interest in the children’s toy Peppa Pig. It caused amazement and ridicule.

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   Will Johnson be forced to quit? If so, who would succeed him? The long-time favourite in Rishi Sunak, the minister of finance, who was widely praised for his quick response to the covid emergency and stepped in with massive government grants to help businesses. He is of Indian origin and would be the first prime minister anywhere in Europe who was not a European by birth. But he is still young, has been an MP for only four years and is relatively inexperienced. A rival contender is Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, who is ambitious, right-wing in her views and a favourite with traditional conservatives. But she is seen as a political lightweight. 

  All cabinet members are keeping an embarrassed silence about Johnson’s future. Contenders for the job will not challenge him outright; they do not want to be seen as disloyal, especially as Johnson may survive. He has emerged unscathed from many scandals before, including his affairs with various women and his illegitimate children.

  Two big tests will soon decide his fate. A senior civil servant, asked to head an inquiry, will soon report on the Downing Street parties and on whether Johnson knowingly broke the lockdown law. The report is likely to be damning. And in May there will be local elections. If the Conservatives do badly, they will not hesitate to remove Johnson as prime minister and select another leader before the next general election, due in 2024.  Once popular because he was different, Johnson is largely now seen as a clown and a crook. He has little time to recover.

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