LONDON – One of his lawmakers is calling him a “dead end man”. The leader of the Scottish Conservatives says he must stop. And after a humiliating day for Prime Minister Boris Johnson in parliament on Wednesday, some cabinet members have been remarkably slow to show their support.
After admitting to attending a party in Downing Street during Britain’s first and worst lockdown from coronavirus, Mr Johnson is in deep trouble, two years after leading his Conservatives to their biggest election win in decades.
Here’s a guide to how many problems there are and what can happen next.
This is about much more than a few drinks in a garden.
On Wednesday, Mr Johnson apologized for attending a May 2020 meeting that apparently violated the lockdown rules he had imposed on England. The party was held in the garden of 10 Downing Street, where British Prime Ministers live and work, and staff were asked to ‘bring your own drink’.
Mr Johnson said he thought it was a work event but did little to appease critics.
It is the latest in a series of reports of Downing Street partying while restrictions were in place, claims that have shrunk Conservative polls and led to the tearful dismissal of an aide who was caught on video laughing over a “Christmas wine.” “. and cheese”. Top civil servant Sue Gray has been tasked with investigating reports from as many as seven parties that may have broken rules in 2020.
The most recent revelation is the most serious for several reasons. After weeks of insisting that all rules were being followed, Mr. Johnson has admitted to attending an event to which dozens of people appear to have been invited, at a time when restrictions have prevented socializing with more than one other person, even outdoors, in almost all circumstances.
Some lawmakers responded to Mr Johnson’s apology with testimonials from people who were not allowed to visit dying relatives.
The lawmakers of Mr. Johnson could easily force him out.
In Britain it is difficult to get rid of a serving prime minister, but far from impossible. The highest task of the country goes to the leader of the political party with a parliamentary majority. The party can remove its leader and elect another, and switch prime ministers without a general election.
Under current Conservative Party rules, its Members of Parliament can hold a binding vote of no confidence in Mr Johnson if 54 of them make a formal request in writing. The request letters are confidential.
So far, only four Conservatives in parliament have publicly called on Mr Johnson to quit. Only one senior legislator knows how many letters have been written, and he would only make the number public if it reached the threshold for a challenge.
In a vote of no confidence, held by secret ballot, Mr Johnson would keep his job by winning a simple majority of conservative lawmakers. He would then be safe from such a challenge for a year unless the rules were changed.
His cabinet could undermine him fatally.
Cabinet uprisings destabilize prime ministers and can be crucial in pushing them to exit. The catalyst for Margaret Thatcher’s death in 1990 was the resignation of Geoffrey Howe, a disgruntled former ally, and Theresa May lost several ministers – including Mr Johnson himself, who stepped down as foreign secretary in 2018.
As Prime Minister, Mr Johnson has so far more or less maintained cabinet discipline. But a senior minister, former Brexit negotiator David Frost, resigned late last year over policy differences. And it took several hours for Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Treasury, to show lukewarm support for Mr Johnson after his apology. It could of course be a coincidence, but Mr. Sunak is one of the top contenders to take over as Mr. Johnson falls.
Or he may succumb to quiet pressure.
This was once known as a visit from the ‘men in gray suits’, a phrase that dates back to a time when all the major power brokers goods Gentlemen. At the time, when a group known as the “magic circle” chose the leader of the Conservative Party, such senior lords could also withdraw their support and ask the prime minister to resign. Today things are not like that, but leaders can still be persuaded to leave on their own terms and maintain some measure of dignity, or risk being unceremoniously kicked out.
Ms May resigned in 2019, a few months after surviving a leadership challenge vote, when it became clear that her support within the party had ebbed so much that her position was hopeless. Similar pressure, accompanied by ministerial resignations, was used to evict Tony Blair, the Prime Minister of the Labor Party, from Downing Street in 2007.
The fatal blow, if it comes, could last for months.
Timing a coup is never easy. Critics are unlikely to force a confidence vote until they believe Mr Johnson is so damaged he could lose. That tipping point may be near, but most importantly, there is no consensus as to who would replace Mr Johnson and therefore there is no single cabal orchestrating a challenge.
Understand Boris Johnson’s Recent Troubles
Mr Sunak is the frontrunner and Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, is one of the main candidates, but there are likely a number of others to join. They all have to be careful. In the past, ambitious rivals have suffered from being seen as disloyal to the Prime Minister and failing to win the crown (though not Mr Johnson, who opposed and subsequently succeeded Mrs May).
For most conservative lawmakers, the question is whether a change would help them. None of his potential successors have shown that they can match the pull he showed in leading the party to a landslide victory in 2019.
Most conservative lawmakers seem to be waiting for Ms Gray’s internal investigation before deciding which way to go. Despite her reputation for independence, she finds herself in a rare and awkward position: an unelected official preparing a report that could prove fatal to her elected boss. So some analysts expect her to limit her findings to facts she establishes without making a direct judgment about Mr. Johnson’s conduct.
Mr Johnson has bounced back before.
Escaping from scratches is one of the Prime Minister’s signature skills. A conservative ex-Prime Minister, David Cameron, once described Mr Johnson as the “fat piglet” of politics: his career has seen no shortage of layoffs and humiliations, each followed by greater triumph.
To slip out of this tight corner, Mr Johnson must prevent the cabinet from resigning and prevent a flood of letters demanding a vote of no confidence. He will then hope that Mrs. Gray’s report is diplomatic enough to survive, albeit after another apology and a purge of his top team. He could please his party lawmakers by ending all coronavirus restrictions later this month, giving him more breathing room.
But he may have even more problems.
Aside from the crisis over Downing Street parties, things are looking tacky for the government. Energy bills are skyrocketing, inflation is rising and interest rates have risen at a time when Mr Johnson is about to raise taxes. The opposition Labor party has gained traction with its complaints of a ‘pressure on the cost of living’.
Mr. Johnson’s enemies circle and Mr. Sunak and Mrs. Truss maneuver. In May, the Conservatives will face local elections that will test Johnson’s popularity. Opinion polls show support for him personally is waning and suggest he is now dragging his party down. A recent survey put Conservatives 10 points behind Labour, their worst performance in eight years.
Mr Johnson became Prime Minister in 2019 because his party rightly ruled that he would win a general election for them. When he decides he will lose them next time, his days are numbered.