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LONDON – It was easy to watch Boris Johnson’s grim performance in the House of Commons on Wednesday and conclude that 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 senior officials – held anti-lockdown parties at the height of the pandemic.
Anger at Johnson boiled over on Monday after a leaked email showed that one of his top aides invited more than 100 staff to a rally and encouraged them to “bring your own booze” – as well as many reports that Johnson himself had witnessed. A Member of Parliament was reduced to tears the next day as he recounted how his mother-in-law died alone during the pandemic. Even normally favorable newspapers turned against the prime minister.
Just before answering questions from the opposition Labor leader during their weekly Q&A on Wednesday, Johnson made a brief statement to the packed house in which he apologized for attending a drink in his Downing Street garden in May 2020, when everyone in the country was banned from meeting more than one other person outside. Johnson said he “implicitly believed it was a professional event”, which Labor leader Keir Starmer immediately called “ridiculous”.
Johnson may have said he was sorry, but the move was unlikely, to say the least, to satisfy his critics on the opposition benches or in his own party.
If Johnson had had any doubts about the bad day of his day, the reaction that followed made the point.
You didn’t have to go far to find Tories who agreed with Starmer. In a remarkable intervention, Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, publicly called for Johnson’s resignation. Later, Conservative MP William Wragg told BBC Radio 4 that the Prime Minister’s position was “untenable”.
One Tory 2019 admitting MP called the apology ‘half-cheeky’ and another, asked if the statement helped, simply replied, ‘No. One of those MPs said he had already submitted a letter to the 1922 committee – as part of the process of triggering a leadership contest that could overthrow Johnson – and the other said he was willing to do so.
But despite all the seething anger, Johnson could still limp.
British prime ministers are notoriously difficult to eliminate halfway through an electoral cycle, and Johnson’s best hope – a strategy he has spent his career honing – is that he can hang on long enough for the anger is extinguished.
Stop voting as a winner?
Much will depend on the level of anger expressed by voters. Johnson, hailed primarily by his party as an electoral asset, should be able to prove to his party that voters still agree to survive.
Chris Curtis of pollster Opinium predicted he would not come out unscathed: “Unlike previous scandals, this distracts previously loyal voters from the Prime Minister, who has lowered his approval rating to an all-time low.”
But despite the dark background music, others said it was too early to write off Johnson. Several observers close to the prime minister speculated that his opponents had been too quick to step into the deep end and risked a backlash.
A former minister described the reactions of his colleagues as “excessive” in relation to the opinion of the citizens.
James Johnson, founder of JL Partners and former adviser to Theresa May, said the scandal had “generated a flash of anger, but it is quickly fading,” adding that “politicians may have overtaken the public now in their movement against Johnson “.
Andrew Gimson, Johnson’s biographer, argued that even though the situation was “very serious” there “may at some point be a reaction to the Puritanism of his many critics if they exaggerate their hand.”
While Johnson’s Conservative Party is notorious for its brutality when it comes to removing its own leaders, it would nonetheless be a “big thing” for them to decide to topple the leader who won a landslide victory a year ago. little more than two years, observed Gimson.
Roger Gale, a longtime conservative, described Johnson as “a walking dead man” on National News Wednesday. Former Chancellor George Osborne used identical language to describe Theresa May in 2017, after which she remained in office for almost two years.
The same ex-minister quoted above admitted he had “no idea whether the show would last another six weeks or six years.”
In order to go much further, Johnson must survive three impending hot spots. The first is the investigation by Sue Gray, an experienced public servant known to be formidable, into the party’s allegations.
While Johnson to some extent anticipated the big reveal by admitting he was in attendance at one of those parties, if his findings are particularly striking, they could prove to be the last straw for MPs who were hesitant to find out if he had to go.
It’s also possible that the police might decide to launch a formal investigation – something they’ve resisted so far – that would put Gray’s investigation in the shadows and turn the pressure on Johnson from heavy to acute.
And third, an observation made time and time again 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’ll all drink together until we forget.