London: How did it come to this? It’s less than 2½ years since British Prime Minister Boris Johnson led the Conservative Party to its biggest win in 40 years.
Under his leadership, the Tories gained 43.6 per cent of the popular vote and a healthy 80 seat majority. It was something his predecessors Theresa May, David Cameron and John Major couldn’t dream about.
The Conservatives smashed through the “Red Wall” — a set of constituencies in the Midlands, northern England and north-east Wales – which had historically supported Labour but registered a strong Leave vote in the 2016 European Union referendum.
Boris Johnson was greeted with applause as he returned to Number 10 after the 2019 election victory. Credit:PA Pool
Anything looked possible. But now, halfway through his five-year term, his number is up. He may have survived a vote of confidence but with 41 per cent of his MPs against him, leadership is on borrowed time.
Perhaps this is unfair. There are laudable aspects to what he has achieved as prime minister. He’s been by far the strongest Western leader supporting Ukraine and in standing up to Putin’s Russia. He is the most ambitious head of a major economy in setting climate targets.
Like Kevin Rudd in Australia more than a decade ago, Johnson’s potential downfall has been driven by the betrayal of his colleagues, many of them elected on his coattails. It is possible voters – who clearly believed he could lift the nation out of a Brexit crisis in 2019 – will never get to cast their judgement.
Boris Johnson toured Kyiv in April with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Tory MPs say he lacks integrity, has a loose relationship with the truth and cannot be trusted. Some say he isn’t conservative enough. Some say some of his policies are too conservative.
His government has been engulfed for six months with allegations of lying, misleading parliament, breaching strict lockdown measures, turning a blind eye to sleaze and corruption within his party and not doing enough to combat the cost-of-living crisis.
Since then, his approval ratings have nosedived. This time last year, when he was presiding over Britain’s successful vaccine rollout, he was briefly in positive territory, but a YouGov tracker now puts him on minus 42.
The same poll found that almost eight in 10 voters thought he had lied over the Partygate affair, while only 8 per cent thought he told the truth. In their minds, while they stayed at home or away from their ill grandparents, parents, children of friends during the past two years, Johnson and his team were thumbing their noses at them.
Labour’s poll lead over the Conservatives is averaging over 6 per cent.
Scenes at the weekend didn’t surprise his colleagues but reaffirmed their views. Yes, prime ministers do often get booed at football matches, but rarely outside Jubilee church services for the Queen.
Former minister Jesse Newton, who has supported Johnson for 15 years for the London mayoralty and in his bid for PM, delivered the most scathing of attacks.
He said Johnson had presided over “a culture of casual law-breaking” in Downing Street, and his current policy priorities were “deeply questionable”. He added that there were no circumstances in which he could serve in a government led by him.
“For you to prolong this charade by remaining in office not only insults the electorate and the tens of thousands of people who support, volunteer, represent and campaign for our party,” he wrote. “It makes a decisive change of government at the next election more likely.”
The booing that greeted Boris Johnson and his wife Carrie as they arrived for the Jubilee thanksgiving service on the weekend was the final nail in the coffin for some MPs. Credit:Getty
There was no typical profile of the 148 MPs who called on Johnson to resign. They were “Leavers” and “Remainers”, rural and metropolitan, southerns and northerners. They are MPs from across every intake, from veterans first elected in the 1980s to newbies from 2019. He has united a group of MPs who had little in common apart from their party membership.
We shouldn’t at all be surprised that it has reached this point. Johnson’s long career in public life has been littered with similar accusations.
As a journalist, he was sacked for making up quotes; as a shadow minister he was punted over lurid claims about his love life. He once conspired to have a fellow journalist beaten up and has courted controversy with occasional racist and homophobic remarks. And that’s just the half-time highlights. He was even accused of lying to the Queen when he advised her to suspend parliament during a Brexit constitutional crisis in 2019. (For the record, the UK Supreme Court sidestepped that question when it found the suspension unlawful.)
It’s the character assessments of those who know him best which are the most damning.
Legendary newspaper editor Max Hastings, a former boss, once described him as “unfit for national office” because it seems he cares for no interest “save his own fame and gratification”.
That Johnson became prime minister at all is testament to his incredible self-belief, coupled with the unique circumstances. That was boosted by his total lack of shame.
Having told the House of Commons that “all guidance was followed completely in Number 10” when the Partygate revelations first came to light, Johnson later apologised and paid a £50 fine for breaking COVID regulations for attending his own birthday at Downing Street. Sue Gray – the civil servant who investigated Downing Street’s numerous lockdown parties – condemned a “failure of leadership” under the PM’s watch.
It wasn’t just his attendance that rankled but the culture of shunting responsibility, disrespect for cleaning and security and staff and boasting that the office had “got away with it”.
John Penrose, Johnson’s Anti-Corruption Tsar, resigned on Monday’s because he said it was “pretty clear” the prime minister had broken the ministerial code of conduct.
“I’m afraid it wouldn’t be honourable or right for me to remain as your anti-corruption champion after reaching this conclusion, nor for you to remain as Prime Minister either,” he wrote.
The party is over, but Boris Johnson is still loitering for now. There’s little doubt it will soon be time to leave.
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