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LONDON — It was easy to watch Boris Johnson’s baleful performance in the House of Commons Wednesday and conclude his days are numbered.
For weeks the British prime minister has faced sustained pressure following a tsunami of allegations that Downing Street staff — and Johnson, his wife and his top officials — held lockdown-busting parties during the height of the pandemic.
Anger directed at Johnson boiled over Monday after a leaked email showed one of his senior aides had invited more than 100 staff to a gathering and encouraged them to “bring your own booze” — as well as widespread reports Johnson himself had attended. One MP was reduced to tears the following day as he recounted how his mother-in-law died alone during the pandemic. Even normally supportive newspapers turned on the prime minister.
Just before facing questions from the opposition Labour leader at their weekly Prime Minister’s Questions session Wednesday, Johnson gave a short statement to the packed chamber in which he apologized for attending a drinks party in his Downing Street garden in May 2020, when everyone in the country was banned from meeting more than one other person outdoors. Johnson said he “believed implicitly it was a work event,” which Labour leader Keir Starmer instantly decried as “ridiculous.”
Johnson may have said he was sorry, but the move was — to put it mildly — unlikely to satisfy his critics on the opposition benches or in his own party.
If Johnson had been in any doubt about how bad a day he was having, the reaction that followed underlined the point.
You didn’t have to go far to find Conservatives who agreed with Starmer. In a remarkable intervention, Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative Party leader, called publicly for Johnson to resign. Later, Tory MP William Wragg told BBC Radio 4 that the prime minister’s position was “untenable.”
One Tory MP from the 2019 intake called the apology “half-arsed” and another, asked if the statement had helped, replied simply: “No.” One of these MPs said he had already submitted a letter to the 1922 committee — part of the process for triggering a leadership contest which could topple Johnson — and the other said he was minded to do so.
But for all the frothing anger, Johnson could yet limp on.
British prime ministers are notoriously difficult to dispose of mid-way through an electoral cycle and Johnson’s best hope — a strategy he has spent his career perfecting — is that he can hang on long enough for the anger to burn itself out.
Vote winner no more?
A lot will turn on the level of anger voiced by voters. Johnson, hailed principally by his party as an electoral asset, would need to be able to prove to his party that voters were still onside in order to survive.
Chris Curtis of pollster Opinium predicted he would not escape unscathed: “Unlike previous scandals, this is turning previously loyal voters off the prime minister, which has sent his approval rating to an all-time low.”
But despite the grim mood music, others said it was too soon to write off Johnson. Several close observers of the premier surmised that his opponents had been too quick to go in at the deep end, and risked a backlash to the backlash.
One former minister described his colleagues’ reactions as “excessive” compared with the views of members of the public.
James Johnson, founder of JL Partners and a former adviser to Theresa May, said the scandal had “generated a flash of anger, but it fades fast,” adding that “the politicians may have outpaced the public now in their move against Johnson.”
Andrew Gimson, Johnson’s biographer, argued that while the situation was “very serious” there “may be at some point a reaction to the puritanism of his many critics if they overplay their hand.”
While Johnson’s Conservative Party is famously brutal when it comes to deposing its own leaders, it would nonetheless be a “big thing” for them to decide to topple the leader who delivered a landslide victory just over two years ago, Gimson observed.
Roger Gale, a long-serving Tory, described Johnson as “a dead man walking” on national news Wednesday. Former Chancellor George Osborne used identical language to describe Theresa May in 2017 — after which she continued in post for nearly two years.
The same ex-minister quoted above admitted that he had “no idea if the show will go on for six more weeks or six years.”
In order to make it much further, Johnson has to survive three looming flashpoints. The first is the investigation by Sue Gray, an experienced and reputedly fearsome civil servant, into the party allegations.
While Johnson has to some extent pre-empted the big reveal by admitting he was present at one of these parties, if her findings are particularly stark they could prove the final straw for MPs who were on the fence about whether he ought to go.
There is also the possibility that the police decide to launch a formal investigation — something they have resisted so far — which would put Gray’s inquiry in the shade and turn the pressure on Johnson from heavy to acute.
And thirdly, one observation made repeatedly by Conservative veterans is that the key tipping point will be when MPs decide he is no longer an electoral asset. For most of the year this is an abstract question, but with local elections looming in May it will soon be tested in practice.
As a former Johnson adviser put it: “Local elections are the point of no return. If they don’t move against him then we will all just limp along together to oblivion.”