Boris Johnson’s appetite for power seems to increase with each scandal, but after a fourth successive Tory triumph in 2019, the signs suggest the rubber band could again be stretched quite far.
This week, Johnson’s Tory MPs decided not to back him or sack him over whether he had misled Parliament over the ‘partygate’ scandal. This leaves him in a no man’s land between being tolerated and rejected by the party he once commanded as the winner of the election. Being fined by police for breaking his own lockdown rules made Johnson the first UK leader to breach ruling criminal law and the first to be investigated for contempt of the House of Commons. municipalities.
However, the Prime Minister’s talent for delaying can still save his skin. Only his fellow Tory MPs can remove him from office, and it helps that his most powerful rival, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, has fallen out of favor. But personal survival hardly fits a cohesive government agenda, and that gap is increasingly noted, even among backbench MPs once reluctant to risk a change at the helm.
Perhaps sensing that, Johnson rallied his troops earlier this week asking if they would prefer him – or Labour. But the more pressing question is whether they start favoring another conservative. If this administration is giving off a whiff of rot, then the parliamentary party is giving off the stench of corruption. An alarming number of Conservative MPs have broken the law in a dizzying variety of ways. The signs of unearned rights and drift are all there. Has the party been in power for too long?
This is how seemingly impregnable governments – and Johnson has a strong majority of 75 in the House of Commons – crumble. It is not by force of external pressure, but largely from within.
In the early 1960s, after 13 years of Tory rule, revelations from top ministerial jinks added to the feeling that Britain had lost an empire and had found no role. At the end of an even longer period of supremacy in the 1990s, conservative politicians made headlines for petty speculation and sex scandals. The Cold War had been won, but welfare state reform was clearly beyond a worn-out Conservative government.
After the last general election in 2019, Johnson “did Brexit”, as he had promised. But what is this government’s objective now, 12 years after the Conservatives returned to power? Johnson’s allies say he was born as a Churchillian warlord. A “simple” fine from the police – though it may just be the first of many – is matched, they say, by his moving defiance of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has praised Johnson, but it’s Britain’s armed forces that deserve the real plaudits. As politicians talked peace with Putin over the past six years, British (and American) soldiers prepared for war and passed on new weapons and tactics to Ukrainians.
Doing the right thing by Ukraine does not fill the domestic political vacuum either. Voters, while supporting the attempt to fend off an international tyrant, are worried about their domestic situation. And Britain changed leaders in wartime for centuries – that’s how Winston Churchill, who is Johnson’s hero and declared role model, got the job.
In our country, the government’s priorities are difficult to discern. A few weeks ago he was determined to solve the energy crisis, although the Prime Minister was too terrified of losing the support of a few rural MPs to give planning permission for cheap onshore wind farms and quickly built.
Then 10 Downing Street claimed that leveling the differences between the post-industrial north of England and the affluent south east was the real deal. But there is no money to finance the policy. This week the media was told that No 10 is putting ‘Brexit opportunities’ at the heart of government. Is this the code for a tariff war with the European Union over Northern Ireland while a real war is raging in Eastern Europe?
Unsurprisingly, voters are duly impressed. A poll published this week in the London Times reveals that Labor is ahead in all policy areas, including the economy.
A by-election in the northern seat of Wakefield has been called after former incumbent Conservative MP Imran Khan was convicted of sexually assaulting a minor after dozing him with alcohol. After Khan’s sentencing, a former Tory MP and former justice minister, Crispin Blunt, tweeted that his sentencing “was nothing short of an international outrage”. He then apologized.
The macabre scandals continue to multiply. Another Tory MP, David Warburton, has just been suspended for multiple allegations of sexual assault. He told the Sunday Telegraph ‘he has huge stacks of defence’. Andrew Bridgen, a Tory MP with sinister conspiracy theories, was convicted last week of lying under oath in court in a multi-million pound family dispute. He was accused of pressuring a police inspector to investigate his brother for false allegations of fraud. (Bridgen called the decision “disappointing.”)
The party of law and order has lost its moral compass. The government has lost its way. While few leaders can bounce back from such defiant setbacks as Boris Johnson, many on his side are beginning to wonder why he is allowing so many in the first place.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Martin Ivens was editor of The Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was previously its chief political commentator. He is a director on the board of the Times Newspapers.
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