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LONDON – It was easy to see Boris Johnson’s ominous performance in the House of Commons on Wednesday and to conclude that his days are numbered.
The UK Prime Minister has been under sustained pressure for weeks after a tsunami of allegations that Downing Street workers – and Johnson, his wife and his top officials – held lockdown parties during the height of the pandemic.
The anger directed at Johnson boiled Monday after a leaked email showed that one of his senior staff members invited more than 100 employees to a meeting and encouraged them to “bring your own alcohol” – as well as widespread reports of them Johnson himself had attended. A MP was moved to tears the next day when he recounted how his mother-in-law died alone during the pandemic. Even normally supportive newspapers turned on the prime minister.
Just before answering questions from the opposition Labor leader at the Prime Minister’s weekly question and answer session on Wednesday, Johnson made a brief statement outside the packed room apologizing for attending a drinks party in his garden in May 2020 Downing Street when everyone in the country was forbidden to meet more than one other person in the open air. Johnson said he “implicitly believed it was a labor event,” which Labor leader Keir Starmer immediately described as “ridiculous”.
Johnson may have said he was sorry, but the move was unlikely to satisfy his critics on the opposition benches or in his own party, to say the least.
If Johnson had any doubts about how bad a day was for him, the subsequent reaction underscored it.
You didn’t have to go far to find conservatives who agreed to Starmer. In a notable intervention, Douglas Ross, chairman of the Scottish Conservative Party, publicly called on Johnson to resign. Tory MP William Wragg later told BBC Radio 4 that the prime minister’s position was “untenable”.
One 2019 Tory MP described the apology as “half-finished” and another, who asked if the statement helped, simply replied, “No”. One of those MPs said he had already submitted a letter to the 1922 committee – part of the process of sparking a leadership contest that could overthrow Johnson – and the other said he was interested.
But with all the foaming anger, Johnson could limp further.
British Prime Ministers are notoriously difficult to dispose of in the middle of an election cycle, and Johnson’s greatest hope – a strategy he has perfected in his career – is that he can hold out long enough for the anger to burn itself out.
Do not vote any more?
Much will affect voter anger. Johnson, who is hailed primarily by his party as an electoral advantage, should be able to prove to his party that the voters were still in office to survive.
Opinium’s Chris Curtis predicted that he would not get away scot-free: “In contrast to previous scandals, this has deterred loyal voters from the Prime Minister, who has brought his approval ratings to an all-time low.”
But despite the somber mood music, others said it was too early to write Johnson off. Several close observers of the Prime Minister suspected that his opponents had gone too quickly into the deep end and risked a backlash to the backlash.
A former minister described the reactions of his colleagues as “excessive” compared to the views of the public.
James Johnson, founder of JL Partners and former advisor to Theresa May, said the scandal “sparked an outburst of anger but it quickly faded,” adding that “politicians may now have overtaken the public in their crackdown on Johnson” .
Andrew Gimson, Johnson’s biographer, argued that while the situation was “very serious”, “there could at some point be a reaction to the puritanism of its many critics if they exaggerate.”
While Johnson’s Conservative Party is known to be brutal when it comes to ousting its own leaders, overthrowing the leader who won a landslide victory just over two years ago would be a “big deal”, Gimson noted.
Long-time Tory Roger Gale described Johnson on national news Wednesday as “a dead man walking.” Former Chancellor George Osborne used an identical language to describe Theresa May in 2017 – after which she stayed in office for almost two years.
The ex-minister quoted above admitted that he “had no idea whether the show would last six weeks or six years”.
To move forward, Johnson must survive three looming trouble spots. The first is the investigation into the party allegations by Sue Gray, a seasoned and allegedly terrifying officer.
While Johnson pre-empted the big reveal to some extent by admitting he was in attendance at one of those parties, if their results are particularly clear they could deny MPs who don’t yet know whether to leave turn out to be the last drop.
There is also the possibility that the police might decide to open a formal investigation – which they have so far opposed – that would dwarf Gray’s investigation and turn the pressure on Johnson from severe to acute.
And third, a repeated observation by Conservative veterans is that the crucial turning point will be when MPs decide it is no longer an electoral advantage. For most of the year this is an abstract question, but with the upcoming local elections in May it will soon be tested in practice.
As a former Johnson adviser put it, “The local elections are the point of no going back. If they don’t act against him, we will all hobble into oblivion. “