The political position of the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, after the lockdown busting Partygate scandal is now looking very weak and he could soon face a no-confidence motion from his party. Several key factors are at play:
Public outrage over Partygate
The latest YouGov poll after the release of the Gray report showed that 59% of voters think he should resign. The Gray report exposed widespread non-observance of the lockdown rules in the PM’s office and broke that essential unwritten rule that lawmakers themselves observe the laws they make.
The Metropolitan Police has fined many junior officials but senior officials escaped and there was only one fine for Johnson, despite the view that he in fact attended several parties, leaving questions about the integrity of the investigations. The police are struggling to maintain their operational independence. As with other areas of government now, there is an impression that government is in crisis and losing in effectiveness.
Johnson then, on Friday, changed the rules, the Ministerial Code, over ministerial responsibility to absolve ministers of the obligation to resign if they are seen not to observe truth, honesty, integrity and responsibility. This is seen as a cynical ploy to evade further accountability, a typical Johnsonian approach to the not-to-him serious job of leading a government. Many Tory MPs are concluding that his alleged repentance after the Partygate revelations was meaningless and characteristic of his dishonesty.
Classically Tory support for their leader drains away if perceived as a liability. Their key driver is power and the ability to win elections to retain that power. An in-depth survey by YouGov showed that all but 3 of 88 key constituencies could be lost and with it their majority. The Tories dumped Mrs Thatcher in 1990 after the Poll Tax riots when she became seen as an electoral hazard. They went on to narrowly win in 1992.
His policy, often much more short term tactical than strategic, now appears to be a series of incoherent gestures, mainly to the Tory Party right wing to keep them on board. Hence the latest idea of restoring imperial measurement for products as a sop to Brexiters but seen as anachronistic. Taxation has again been increased to fund the cost-of-living support in the current inflation crisis but offends the low tax stalwarts of the Thatcherite tendency. Channel 4 is up for privatisation and the Home Secretary is intending to send illegal immigrants to Rwanda. A reform of the Human Rights Act is also promised, with the suggestion of watering down human rights. Observers write of a Tory identity crisis.
In general the Johnson regime seems incompetent, accident prone and chaotic, an impression reinforced by the ongoing drip feed of more Partygate revelations and the overall poor leadership by Johnson that demonstrated.
Erosion in standards of public life under Johnson
British government institutions and public life are seen as in serious disrepair, a consequence of Johnson’s disregard for the principles that inform the conduct of government. The effect of Partygate has been to highlight a broad sense of disrespect for such principles and in turn a perception by the public at large that this is how politics is conducted and how politicians behave. This is a potentially grave damage to democracy and the glue that hold it together, the consent of the public to what government does allegedly in its name.
The Greased Piglet
David Cameron, the UK Tory PM before the Brexit referendum which Johnson’s Leaver side won, described Johnson as the ‘Greased Piglet’ for his ability to slip out of tight situations and get away with his misdeeds. Thus any speculation about his fate needs to be treated with caution. At the time of going writing this there is talk that he is now very close to facing a leadership challenge, since 54 Tory MPs need to indicate to the party that they have no confidence in him and the numbers are apparently getting close to the target. The Tories are conflicted between the hazards of a leadership change as an election approaches, and the lack of an heir apparent, as against the now very serious risk of lasting brand damage. Yet Johnson the rule breaker has a proven track record of defying all expectations, particularly of reasonable people, and his current lurch to the right could yet save his skin again.
Featured image by Salo Al on Pexels.